Of Relics

Portion of Saint Anne’s forearm at Sainte Anne-de-Beaupre, Quebec, donated by Pope John XXIII, July 3, 1960.

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The other day, I was in our local bookstore, talking to the owner, Gary, about my new book, The Geriatric Pilgrim: Tales From the Journey, now available just in time for Christmas (hint, hint) from this website, independent book stores like “The Gulf of Maine” in Brunswick, or, as a last resort, Amazon.

Now, Gary is a true pilgrim who’s made a lot more pilgrimages than I have; he’s even taught a course called Pilgrimage. When he started talking about the relics he’s seen on his travels, I realized that in the seven years I’ve been writing this blog, while I’ve written about the stones I’ve collected and a snakeskin I cherish, I’ve never written about relics.

So, when I returned home, I did some research, beginning with what constitutes a relic. The word is connected to the Latin, reliquiae, which refers to the fossil remains of animals or plants. In a secular sense, a relic can be a remnant—even a person—who belongs to an earlier time but has survived into the present. Usually, however, we use the word to describe an object or article of religious or spiritual significance from the past consisting of either the physical remains of a saint or other revered person, or something closely connected to that person which has been preserved for the purposes of veneration.

The veneration of relics is a big part of religions such as Christianity and Buddhism. One of the first recorded uses of a relic is in the Bible’s Old Testament, when the prophet Elisha picks up the cloak of his mentor Elijah, who has just ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire, and uses it to strike the Jordan River, parting the waters so he can cross. In the New Testament, handkerchiefs that the Apostle Paul had touched were applied by others to cure the sick. By the Middle Ages, veneration of relics was a common practice in the Christian Church.

The worship of relics, however, got out of hand. I recall reading somewhere that if all the pieces of “The True Cross”—the cross on which Jesus was crucified—were gathered, you’d have enough wood to build a city. In graduate school, I read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories told on a fictional 14th-century pilgrimage to the shrine of the martyred Thomas Becket in Canterbury, England. One of the pilgrims is a pardoner, a seller of relics. Perhaps because he’s drunk or perhaps because he’s an egomaniac, he reveals that his relics are sheep bones and other fakes. Later, after a few more drinks, he tries to sell his wares to the audience anyway.

Influenced, perhaps, by Chaucer, I’ve always disdained relics as phony and venerating them as foolish. I remember going to the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre in Quebec and snickering at what’s supposed to be a 4” portion of the forearm of the mother of Mary encased in a glass reliquary. And a couple of years ago, when Mary Lee and I visited Cologne Cathedral, all I could think of was how in hell the bones of the Magi (I grew up calling them the Three Wisemen) wound up in Germany. (It’s a long story. Look it up.)

As close as I could get to the Bones of the Magi in Cologne Cathedral

But maybe because I realize that I’m a sort of relic myself these days, belonging to another time, surviving into the present—a relic who wouldn’t mind a little veneration—I find myself reevaluating the practice of revering relics. I wonder if making a pilgrimage to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre is all that different from going to Ford’s Theater Museum to see the blood-stained pillow on which President Lincoln died. What about the millions who pilgrimage to Cooperstown to see Babe Ruth’s 35 ¾”, 38 oz. baseball bat, which he notched every time he hit a home run?

Which has me thinking: have I ever revered a relic?

And looking around my office, I discover the following:

—Five paintings and one wood-burning done by my daughter before she died.

—A letter holder my father made for my mother when they were going together in high school and a wooden plate I remember him carving before he spent his evenings drinking and watching TV.

—Two banjos: one bequeathed to me by my friend Margaret, who was probably the closest things to a saint I’ve ever known; and one I bought from my recently deceased friend Jim, whose obituary described him as an internationally renowned legal scholar and “unrepentant” banjo player.

—A pencil holder decorated in hieroglyphics that belonged to my late father-in-law.

—At least ten different joke-books written by my old basketball and baseball teammate, Scott, before he died of cancer.

At lunch, I look around the dining room and behold a candle box and two cup holders Dad made during his retirement and a collection of demi-tasse cups that came from my mother-in-law. Various pieces of china from Mary Lee’s family sit in a china cabinet that used to belong to my grandmother.

(I’ll spare an inventory of the living room, the family room, the bedrooms, and even the bathrooms. You get the idea.)

What does that tell me about the value of relics?

I realize the relics I’ve identified in my house probably serve the same purpose as the Eastern Buddhist home altars and shrines to the family dead. Relics link us to the past, which, as I’ve often written, is where my hope for the future lies: in the love that we experience from family and friends that continues even after their deaths, and which shows me that no matter what happens to this country or to me, love is stronger than death.

Relics remind me that my Episcopal branch of Christianity considers all of us saints, and that I keep relics as reminders of the goodness of the saints in my life and their role in God’s work. They inspire me to pray to God of my not Understanding to live the same kind of grace-filled life they did.

I’m also thinking of Bob Dylan’s line: “… it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Relics, it seems to me —whether the relics we pilgrimage to or those we have in our homes—are a pretty good indication of who or what we serve. (I’m thinking now of the millions who travel every year to Graceland and the Super Bowl, or collectors, such as the guy who paid $382,000 for the transaxle from the Porsche 550 Spyder in which James Dean died.)

So, of course, I have to ask: what relics do you venerate?

Two of my relics, I suppose: a painting and a wood burning both done by my daughter, both of which hang over my desk.

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The Pilgrimage Continues

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“The Road goes ever on and on,

Down from the door where it began …”

The Lord of the Rings

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Seven years ago this month, I published my first Geriatric Pilgrim blog. As it turns out, this is now the month that my book, The Geriatric Pilgrim: Tales from the Journey, based on fifty of the 130 reflections/musings/essays/memoirs/whatever I’ve posted over the last seven years, comes on the market.

When I decided to pull these essays together, I thought it would be a simple matter of picking out the ones I liked best and putting them down in the order they were written. Instead, creating this book became its own pilgrimage, and like any pilgrimage, the journey was both more difficult and at the same time more rewarding than I’d expected.

Writers about pilgrimage agree that pilgrimages are about the often-uncomfortable experience of beginning again.  The first thing I realized as I read over my blogs is that a lot has changed since November of 2015. Barak Obama was still President of the United States. Few people wore masks except on Halloween or to rob banks. When we talked about getting our shots, we meant flu and shingles shots. Women’s right to abortion was taken for granted.

I, too, have changed. Looking at my first blogs, I saw that I was concerned, possibly even obsessed, with the differences between pilgrimages and vacations, but that over the years I’d discovered that any journey could be a pilgrimage. In 2015, I’d just started attending Al Anon meetings but had not begun attending the meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics, meetings that opened my eyes to years of denial about my alcohol/anger-fumed childhood.

In those early writings, I worried I wasn’t a good grandfather to my, at the time, four grandchildren. I fretted about my deteriorating back and that I was four inches shorter than I’d been in high school and that I could no longer put a basketball in a hoop. And, as I had since my daughter’s death, I was struggling with the way my body chemistry changed this time of year, because the lengthening shadows and 4:00 p.m. sunsets reminded me of when I was living at the Ronald McDonald House in Bangor, Maine, and watching Laurie die.

Those feelings, too, have changed.

I decided to rewrite these blogs to reflect where I am and who I am now: an 80-year-old man working his 12-step programs, grateful for his now five grandchildren, for his health, which, thanks to a repaired heart and an exercise program that has relieved much of the back pain he’s had since he was in his early thirties, is in some ways better than it was seven years earlier. A man who’s learned to navigate the emptiness left in his heart by his daughter’s death, and to recognize and be grateful for the numerous graces which he’s experienced on his journey over the last seven years.

All of which meant that I felt as if I were beginning the writing all over again. Many of the revised musings that make up The Geriatric Pilgrim: Tales from the Journey are almost complete rewrites. For some of them, I combined two, even three earlier blogs. Even some whose whose content and structure remained the same took as long to revise as they did to write because I saw sentences that needed to be simpler or that I hadn’t used the right word.

And then there was putting these essays in an order that made sense. I no longer wanted to set them down in the order they’d been written. I decided to put all the physical pilgrimages Mary Lee and I made together—all the St. Cuthbert’s Way essays with each other, all the Iona essays, etc.—followed by those dealing with my internal journeys—all those directly dealing with Laurie’s death, all those on aging, a collection of living with COVID essays ….

 Bleech!

So, I took a deep breath and began moving the pieces around like a mosaic, trusting in my intuition. I hope it works. If not, well, it’s hard to get good help these days.

One important characteristic of pilgrimages is that they are made in homage to someone or something greater than ourselves. But as I re-read my earliest blogs, I saw that, although I never came right out and said so, I was chaffing at this relationship with my Higher Power. Yes, I’d been going on religious retreats for the previous twenty years; yes, I’d been meditating for that long; yes, I could honestly say I believed in God. But I was still angry at God for taking Laurie from me, still inclined to leave God behind when I left my meditation corner or retreat house, still judging other people (not to mention myself) as if I were God. I found that reworking these blogs for the book helped me focus on God not as a problem to be solved but as a reality that I’d experienced.

And that experience had been, I saw in rewriting my reflections, one of healing, which is another characteristic of the pilgrimage experience. Before I began posting the blogs, I read many books by writers who’d walked the Santiago de Camino from France to Spain or hiked or biked from England to Jerusalem or walked across Afghanistan or India in search of spiritual or physical healing. Pulling my blogs together revealed to me not only my physical healing from a blocked left main artery in my heart and relief from chronic back pain, but my continued healing from grief. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the pain of losing a child never, never, never goes away. But, as I’ve also written, healing doesn’t mean curing. Healing means being more whole. It means accepting that pain is part of the game, part of being human, part of what it means to love. Accepting my pain has meant that I no longer dread this time of year. Laurie’s death has become like the sky over my head: always there, sometimes storming, sometimes even a hurricane, but also sometimes bracing and beautiful.

And by recognizing my healing, I’m far more likely to write about my experiences as a way to pay homage to—in the words of Dag Hammarskold, former Secretary General of the United Nation—“Thou whom I do not know but whose I am.”  

Which has given me hope. Looking back at my life through these blogs, I see I’ve survived growing up in an alcoholic family, a dysfunctional first marriage, the death of a child, heart disease, and countless stupid decisions to find myself eager to get up every morning. And I realize I’m just one illustration of humanity’s God-given capacity not only to survive famines and plagues, wars and tyrants, but to flourish.

Finally, pilgrimages are about relying on the kindness of those we meet on our journeys. One thing I didn’t change in writing the book is my gratitude for the aid of others: friends, family, teachers, spiritual directors, sponsors, who’ve always appeared when I’ve needed them. Not only is The Geriatric Pilgrim: Tales from the Journey an homage to my Higher Power, but to my wife Mary Lee, who’s been my companion on just about every retreat and pilgrimage I’ve made, including the writing of both blogs and book.

I am blessed.

And, as Phillip Cousineau writes in his classic book The Art of the Pilgrimage—he calls this “the pilgrim’s law”—“You must share whatever wisdom you have been blessed with on your journey… The story we bring back… is the gift of grace …”

Which I keep trying to do, along with the wish that you will be inspired to see your life as a pilgrimage, one that will give you hope and healing.

See you along the road.

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September Slant

September, 2022

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Tell the truth but tell it slant.—Emily Dickinson

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A few weeks ago, about an hour after sunrise, I took a walk through the woods. The air was crisp and the only sounds were of my footsteps crushing the occasional acorn and the breeze blowing the leaves of the trees. Ethereal light ribboned the trunks of the elms, maples, and birches.

Ever the old literature teacher, a line from an Emily Dickinson popped into my head: “There’s a certain slant of light.” When I got home and looked up the poem, however, I found that she was describing light on winter afternoons that “oppresses, like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes—”

For me, the September slant of light lifts, like the lightness of a Celtic harp.

Why Celtic? Probably because I hear one when I think of the Scottish island of Iona, the most spiritual place I’ve ever visited— in large part because the light there seems to shimmer, casting heather-covered rocks in an unearthly glow. I’m also uplifted by sunlight through trees, whether it’s here in the woods behind my house, or through towering redwoods in California or the gnarled maple trees over my family’s cemetery plot. And ever since I was a kid going to church with my parents, light shining through stained glass has always lifted me into another reality.

Light figures heavily in my Christian faith. “Let there be light,” God says in the first chapter of Genesis. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus says. “Praise the Lord, I saw the light,” sings Hank Williams.

 But the light I love, I realize, is indirect or diffused light. Direct light, whether it’s the sun beating down overhead in Israel or the Arizona desert or overhead lights—especially those damned florescent things—is both physically and emotionally painful, especially after my cataract surgery.

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I can’t think about light without thinking about the work of Edward Hopper. For me, his slants of light are what turn his paintings into stained glass windows into another—deeper— reality. One of my favorites is “Rooms by the Sea.”

(Photo from WikiArt)

Hopper once wrote: “All I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a wall.” In this painting, trapezoids of sunlight on two of these walls illuminate what I see as liminal space between the sea and what appears to me to be a living room. I note that this space takes up more area in the painting than either the sea or the furnished room. I chuckle at the irony of a light switch highlighted by sunlight. Seeing no visible steps between the doorway and the ocean, I feel both linked to and separated from the natural world and the domestic world, with these two shafts of light as my connection. Perhaps because there are no people in this painting, I find myself pulled into the little rooms of my mind, with those two slants of light becoming my moments of occasional insight into a larger world.     

You may have a different slant on the painting, which gets me to the secondary meaning of the word: “to have or be influenced by a subjective point of view, bias, personal feeling or inclination, etc. (usually followed by toward).” The word “bias” sounds negative, but for me, whether it’s in painting or music or writing, it’s the slant that produces shafts of illumination what I need to light my way on my pilgrimage. Otherwise, just as direct sunlight can give me a headache, too much information can be overwhelming. In both cases, I can’t distinguish between blemishes and blossoms, imperfections and purity.

Which is why I prefer essays and memoirs to journalism and biography: the writer’s slant is more important than the writer’s subject. I’m learning about the author, his or her encounters with memory, not about the subject or what the author did. I know people who don’t like memoir because they feel the authors are solipsistic, self-absorbed. For me, the less successful writers of memoir are not self-absorbed—or I would say, self-aware—enough. They focus on the writer’s accomplishments or their suffering without going into who their accomplishments or suffering have made them to be. One of the paradoxes of art, it seems to me, is that the more deeply artists explore themselves—their slants, if you will—the more universal their work becomes.

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Of course, slants of light change. The trees I’m looking at outside my window as I write this in October are different from the trees I saw on my walk a few weeks ago: the ribbons of light are gone; the tree trunks are entirely in shadow.

I think of how my own slants on things have changed over time. Up until a year or two ago, I used to spend hours watching sports on television. While I can still root for my New England teams, I can no longer watch them on TV. My slant on the games themselves (especially basketball), the politics of sports (especially football), and the commercialism of sports (especially all of them) have driven me—literally—to minor league, college, or high school sports events.

My slant on God changes daily, even hourly.

My twelve-step programs are helping me change my emotional slant on life from anxiety to curiosity, from judgmentalism to acceptance, from pontificating to listening. My Feldenkrais exercises help me change my slant on my back pain, so that I no longer awfulize about every twinge, accept the discomfort, and try to be curious about ways in which I can adapt the exercises to my crooked, aging bones.

Pointing out to me that just as direct sunlight can be too much information; the same slant will eventually become old. Yes, the ribbons of September light on the tree trunks are gone, but now I get to see the October light on the leaves as they change color.

October, 2022

I even enjoy that slant of winter light Emily Dickinson found oppressive: to me, the long shadows of the trees on the snow look like Japanese calligraphy.

So whether it’s the writer’s slant on memories, or the visual artist’s slant of light on the canvas, the slant of sunrise on the Saguaro cactus in Arizona promising new possibilities, the slant of sunset off the Florida Gulf offering peace at the last, or the slant of autumn sunlight through the trees outside my window, I am—excuse the pun—both lightened and enlightened by these slants of reality.

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Notes From Squirrel Island

Circa 1940s. Wikipedia (It hasn’t changed much)

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“A journey, in fact, appeals to Imagination, to Memory, to Hope—the three sister Graces of our mortal being.” Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890)

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I copied this quote from explorer Richard Burton into a pocket notebook, where it has remained for the last couple of years, along with any number of passwords, titles of books and movies people have recommended, email addresses, ideas for writing projects, directions for setting up new AV equipment, grocery lists, descriptions of sunsets, coffee shops, beaches, and airport terminals, Al Anon acronyms, and other quotes that have struck my fancy.

I can’t recall when I didn’t carry a pocket notebook and a pen. They are as essential a part of my wardrobe as underwear.

And before I add this notebook to the others going back to 1965, I’ve flipped back through it, trying—often unsuccessfully—to remember where I was when I wrote an entry, why it was important to write it down, and whether it’s important to me now.

What intrigues me is how the Burton quote helps me flesh out another entry a few pages later: a page and a half of description of a trip I made with my wife Mary Lee last July to Squirrel Island, Maine.

For those of you who don’t know, Squirrel Island is a small island in the Gulf of Maine—about 2 square miles, I think—established as a summer community in 1871. Apparently, it got its name not because of its squirrel population but rather because the shape of the island looks like a squirrel holding an acorn. Practically all its inhabitants are summer residents—I think there might be a caretaker or two who live there year-round—and most of the families have been coming to the island for a hundred or more years. The only motorized vehicles allowed are for maintenance workers. A boardwalk circles the island.

Besides beaches, tennis courts, a library, and a restaurant, there is also a chapel.

And for the last several years, Mary Lee has been asked to preach there one Sunday a summer. I go along as eye-candy.

To get to Squirrel Island, you take a ferry from Boothbay Harbor. It’s a nice half-hour trip (another reason I tag along), and this year, I remember the weather was warm and sunny. A nice woman from the chapel Board of Directors met us and took Mary Lee into the church to go over the various technicalities of the service, leaving me to walk the boardwalk until I found an Adirondack chair overlooking the water, where I sat, and, as is my wont, began to scribble in my notebook.

My first line noted the rotten egg smell of low tide, and how a smokey southwest breeze swayed some yellow lilies in front of me. I went on to describe a small harbor of motorboats pointing out to sea and the weathered cottages with gambrel roofs and wide verandas on the shore gazing out at South Port Island.

Reading those lines now reminds me that the first time I ever heard of Squirrel Island was when my Grandmother Cleaves worked summers into early October as a cook and caretaker for an old woman living on the island. I remember Nanny’s letters to me from there when I was in college, and how I chuckled at her rambling stories of people I’d never heard of and the latest gossip from the movie magazines she devoured like popcorn. (“Liberace’s Wig-maker Tells All.”)  Today I know my grandmother was an unhappy woman, the ex-wife of an alcoholic, who for years took her anger out on my brother, my sister, and me, but at the time, I denied the fact that she scared the hell out of me by imagining her as a comic figure. These days, I’m trying to accept that both her acid tongue and her love for her grandchildren were equally true.

My notebook tells me I noticed a seagull “dive-bombing a lobster boat,” and some sparrows chirping in the large mounds of beach roses under a blue sky “scarred with thin white stripes.” I mentioned the distant hum of lobster boats, the cry of an unhappy baby, and the “coo-coo-coo” of a dove. Which made me remember my friend and mentor Al, a retired Episcopal priest, who facilitated our church’s men’s group for many years. I wrote in my notebook of his love of pigeons, and worried about his severe asthma, compounded by heart problems, which had just sent him to the hospital and then to a nursing facility.

Al died about a month later, and I’ve just been asked to read at his funeral. I’m honored. Al was one of the kindest, gentlest men I ever knew, humble, with a great sense of humor. He was also a courageous advocate for social justice and civil rights. He attended Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington in 1963 and organized transportation from Newark, N.J. to the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. He continued to work for equal rights for all, and in his last years wrote passionate letters to the editor urging us to become better stewards of our planet. He approached his death with dignity and curiosity, looking forward, he said, to the next stage in the journey. I hope to have the same attitude when it’s time for me to pass on.

I made more notes of white moths dancing over some sumac bushes and of a middle-aged woman in a black and white sleeve-less jersey walking her terrier along the boardwalk,  but when I heard the church bells from the chapel ringing out the old hymn, “Let Jesus Christ be Praised,” I thought again of Al, who, a year or so earlier, had written a children’s book, Soren’s Story: A Parable About Bullies and the Peaceable Kingdom.

As the full title makes clear, the book is not only about pigeons, but also about the dangers to children of bullying. I suspect Al, who had come from a dysfunctional family, had suffered bullying himself.

Soren’s Story ends in an old church, not unlike the one on Squirrel Island. Here’s the conclusion:

“Nor did anyone quite know how to explain it, but the great bell in the meeting house tower, long silent, began to move and then to swing and ring out ….

‘Hope on,’ it said. Gong!

            ‘Do justice and love kindness.’ Gong!

                        ‘Take courage and confront evil,’ it rang out. Gong!

                                    ‘And remember mercy.’ Gong!

                                                ‘For there is no future without forgiveness.’ Gong!”

 Reading notes from my Squirrel Island journey, I realize the truth of Sir Richard’s words. Memory takes me back to that day, imagination leads me to my grandmother and Al, and I’m hopeful. As I’ve written in these blogs before, hope for me is not based on some expectation of the future, but on what I’ve learned from the past. Keeping these various notebooks and going back to them, I can see where I’ve struggled, where I’ve been blind, where I’ve been down-right wrong, and yet how I’ve not only survived but thrived afterward. I can also sometimes see where I’ve had inklings of God of my not Understanding, often through mentors like Al, who give me hope that even in this time of threats to our country, both from home and abroad, in this time of one climate disaster after another, love, kindness, courage, and forgiveness can ring out.

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Weeding

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It’s 4:30 in the afternoon and the temperature is still over 80°. A breeze blows from the southwest, making the air feel even hotter. Black flies swarm around my floppy hat as I crawl through the dirt, weeding pumpkin plants. Every few minutes I need to lean back and stretch my aching back. My hand is cramping.

And I’m as happy as a clam at high tide.

From the swamp on the other side of the road by our community garden, sparrows and cardinals chirp and whistle. I listen and drop back to my hands and knees to pull up small bunches of crab grass, pigweed, and plantain. I’ll let the milkweed grow for the butterflies which should be here soon.

I’m not entirely sure I know why I enjoy weeding. I never used to. When I was in high school, working summers in a market garden, weeding was the worst job there was. I’d start out bending over, then drop to my hands and knees, then to my elbows, then to one side, and the next thing I knew I’d be asleep.

But now, far less agile and able than I was at seventeen, there’s something satisfying about seeing a weedless garden. Unlike grandparenting or writing or even playing my banjo—all things I enjoy—I can see immediate results. I really don’t have a lot of control over how many pumpkins I’ll get this fall. That’s up to how much rain and sun we get and whether animals chew things up. But I can control the weeds.

At least if I get them early. Once weeds take root, they take over, sending roots deep into the soil, so that when I pull the weed, the root remains, sending up new weeds, sometimes the next day, and I don’t have the strength anymore to wrestle them out of the ground. Then, my self-satisfaction turns to self-deprecation: Why didn’t you get those damn things earlier? You’re a failure as a gardener, just as you’re a failure at everything else.

So not only is it important to weed the landscape in which I move, I need to weed the landscape in which I think—those weedy thoughts that clutter the garden of my mind.

 While I have a lot of trouble with many parts of the Bible, I’m continually drawn to the parables of Jesus, and in two them, Jesus talks about weeds. In the Parable of the Sower, a farmer is sowing seeds. Some seeds fall on rocky soil, some on weedy soil, and some on good soil. The first seeds don’t grow on rock, the second seeds come up but are choked by thorns, while in the good soil, the seeds produce abundantly.

As Jesus explains, the sower represents someone sowing the word of God. Some who listen are like those who hear the word joyously but can’t take it in and grow from it because they “have no root,” as one of the gospels puts it.  Then there are those who hear the word, grow a bit, but then “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”

That me. How many times have I choked on “cares” and “desires for other things”! The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists 13 common weeds in Maine. I can easily come up with at least that many cares and desires that have choked my ability to become like those in the parable who “hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold”: from my sense that nothing I do is ever good enough to my judgmentalism of myself and others to my need for control and an even greater need for the approval of others to my passive-aggressive sarcasm to my perfectionism to…

I think that’s why, for me, any kind of spiritual growth has involved subtraction rather than addition. Whether it’s through meditation, Feldenkrais exercises, or working the 12-steps, I’m weeding rather than planting—trying to remove what 12-steppers call “defects of character.”

But, as 12-steppers know, we can’t do this ourselves. Step Six says, “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects in character,” and Step Seven says, “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.”

Which gets me to the other parable Jesus tells, the parable of the wheat and the weeds.

In this story, a man plants wheat seed in his field. That night, while everyone is asleep, the man’s enemy plants weeds among the wheat (which, I guess did happen in those days). Later, when the wheat grows, so do the weeds. Then the man’s servants come to him and say, “Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?” He answers, “No, because when you pull up the weeds, you might also pull up the wheat. Let the weeds and the wheat grow together until the harvest time. At the harvest time I will tell the workers first, to gather the weeds and tie them together to be burned, and then to gather the wheat and bring it to my barn.”

I like the parable. What I don’t like is the interpretation of it attributed to Jesus. The man who planted the good seed in the field is supposed to be Jesus, and the field is the world. The good seed are the people in God’s kingdom, and the weeds are the people who belong to the “Evil One.” The enemy who planted the bad seed is the devil. The harvest is the end of time, and the workers who gather are God’s angels. At the end of time, Jesus will send his angels, and they will find the people who cause sin and all those who do evil, take those people out of his kingdom and throw them into the place of fire. Then the “good” people will be taken into the kingdom of God.

This interpretation of separating “good” people from “bad” and condemning those bad folk to eternal hell fire not only seems contrary to Jesus’s other teaching about loving your enemy and his compassion for tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners, but also—it seems to me—cultivates self-righteous and judgmental behavior about who’s “good” and who’s “bad,” which, as I’ve already said, are some of the weeds in my interior garden.

So, for me, what the parable promises is that at some point—possibly at my death, possibly in some afterlife— those weeds that I struggle with, that I’ve let get out of control for the past 80 years, will be removed, and that what remains will be something pure and shining like wheat in the sun. (Or pumpkins in the field.)

In the meantime, I’m trying to pull out the newer weeds, asking myself the following questions:

—What seeds have I planted for the future?

—What recent weeds—complacency, smugness, procrastination, and the like—have taken hold and need to be pulled out for these seeds to grow and produce?

Now weeds I’m happy to send to “the place of fire.”

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My Father, Shoveling

Dad, around 1958, with his first new car

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Every Fourth of July, my father shoveled shit. At least that’s what I remember, although our septic tank probably didn’t back up more than three times altogether. Still, in my memory, my father’s shoveling shit was as much a part of Fourth of July in the 1950’s as the intermittent popping of firecrackers during the day or the town fireworks display in the evening.

Nine or ten or eleven years old, I would watch my father methodically digging down three or four feet through the rocks and clay that lay under the grass in our back yard: stepping down on the shovel, lifting the dirt, pausing, turning the head of the shovel to drop the dirt where he wanted, then reversing the arc downward.

He talked to himself, his voice raspy from Camel cigarettes: “Goddamn septic tank (step down) … What’s the friggin’ use (lift up) … Work all week for chicken shit (turn) … Shovel more shit on the holidays (drop) … Some goddamn life” (swing down) …. He cursed this country’s education system for not preparing him for a trade, cursed World War II for taking five years from his life, cursed Will Franklin who’d stayed home during the war and made money in real estate and who was probably lying in the shade right about then, drinking beer.

Somewhere in Europe, probably 1944

On Fourth of July, when he shoveled shit and the sun rose to the top of the maple trees in the front yard, my father removed his sleeveless under-shirt. When the sun got directly over his head, he ran water on the undershirt and tied it around his head. When he got to the septic tank, he pulled a pint of cheap whisky from the pocket of his overalls, and took several swigs before using a crow bar to pry open the rusty cover of the tank. I stood in the shade of our apple tree, away from the smell, hearing my father’s distant, dry voice: “Jesus H. Christ from Baltimore! How much toilet paper do you kids use at one time, anyway?” Feeling then as if it was my fault that my father had to shovel shit on his only summer holiday, just as it was my fault for needing new shoes, my fault that we ate fried bologna while Will Franklin’s family ate steak.

Yet what strikes me now is that in some weird way my father was, if not happy, then at least content. Perhaps shoveling shit confirmed his conviction that God and Circumstance had conspired to make his life as shitty as possible. Beaten by his father until his mother took him and moved out, put in what 1920’s Massachusetts called a “Home for Wayward Boys” for four years while she worked in Grants and searched for another husband, taken to a small Maine town when she did remarry where he struggled in school and lived the rest of his life working sometimes two jobs to support his wife and three children, he was convinced he lived in a world of injustice—where life handed out unearned advantages to some and unwarranted disadvantages to others … like himself.

Or perhaps, in spite of considering himself a failure, he knew his family loved him, and if he had to clean up their shit, well, that was better than living in the Home for Wayward Boys or in an Army barracks.

Or maybe his spirits were simply jacked up by half a pint of rot gut whisky.

For whatever reason, I remember my father singing as he and I carried the shit, the smell dancing in waves over our buckets, down back of our yard to a ditch that ran to the river that carried shit from septic tanks all over town to the ocean:

“God bless America,

Land that I love

Da da da da, dum de dum dum,

Da da da, dum de dum, da da da.”

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1986 or so. One of the last pictures of Dad. With Mom.

Being Curious

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I’m guessing most of us started out life as being curious.

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         When I was going over my last blog before clicking “Post,” I lingered on the beginning of the sentence: “Looking at life as a pilgrimage has taught me to be curious…” If I’d read that sentence even a few years ago, I would have thought, So? What’s so special about curiosity? Now, however, I’d rate curiosity right up there with oatmeal, ice cream, and baked beans as keys to a long and healthy life.

            I’m guessing most of us started life being curious. I certainly did. I’m told I ran away from home for the first time when I was three. (The family story goes that that I wound up in a police station, and when my mother called the police who told her where I was, she rushed in to find me looking up from a magazine and saying, “Look, Mommy, a turkey!”) But after a series of spankings for running away, or for playing by the polluted river below our house, or for swimming in said river, or for playing in a large expanse of rubble known as “the Black Ash,” I began to see curiosity as a kind of sin, a crime against respectability and decency.

            When I hit my quasi-rebellious adolescence, my mother’s curiosity meant her snooping into my business. Questions like “Where did you go? What did you do? Who were you with?” used to set my teeth on edge as I replied: “Out… Nothing… Nobody special.”

            Although I remained curious—about sex, alcohol, the world outside of Yarmouth, Maine—the sense that I was committing some sin remained with me, not only against propriety but against my gender. Although I didn’t think about it at the time, I realize now I’d begun to equate curiosity with nosey women, like my mother. Years of domineering male coaches, two years working on a forest fire prevention crew and two years of ROTC had taught me that men, real men, weren’t supposed to be curious; they were supposed to follow orders and “be prepared,” as John Wayne and the Boy Scouts put it.

            After that, I don’t think I gave curiosity much thought until about five years ago. Certainly, looking back over those intervening fifty years, I can see myself being curious—I got three college degrees, divorced, remarried, traveled—but I never thought one way or another about why. I just did those things. Then, one day after I’d started working the 12 Steps, I was telling my sponsor how every year for the previous thirty years, as the anniversary of my daughter Laurie’s death approached, my body chemistry changed.

“Well,” said my sponsor, “what would happen if this year you stopped having any preconceived ideas about your reactions and decided to be curious about them?”

            Good student that I am, I tried it, and while there were some sorrowful moments, especially on the actual anniversary of Laurie’s death, I also had some joyful times—free from guilt—trimming the Christmas tree and watching the grandchildren get ready for Santa Claus.

            My sponsor gave me other ways to practice curiosity: going for a walk without a destination. Trying new foods. Asking more questions. Listening more and talking less. (Perhaps my greatest challenge!)

            Since then, I’ve tried to be consciously curious. Which this week has meant being curious about the word “curiosity.” And I’m fascinated by how the various uses of the word mirror my own experience.

            The world originally came from the Latin, cura, meaning “care, concern, trouble.” “Incurious,” on the other hand, used to mean “negligent, heedless.” And what’s interesting to me, especially when I recall my deep-seated feeling that somehow being curious was sinful, is to read that in the early Christian church, acedia, sometimes defined as spiritual sloth, sometimes as boredom (which I’d call lack of curiosity) was a major sin. Writing recently on acedia, theologian Frederick Buechner says, “To be bored to death is a form of suicide… to be bored is to turn down whatever life happens to be offering you at the moment… You feel nothing is worth getting excited about because you are not worth getting excited about.”

But then, as Maria Tatar writes in her book, The Heroine with 1,001 Faces, western culture came to criticize curiosity. The Powers That Be­—i.e., the Church—saw curiosity as a form of snooping and prying, going where one doesn’t belong, disobedience. And of course, the good Fathers of the Church almost always connected curiosity with women. Witness Eve in the Bible, who, eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, commits “Original Sin,” or Pandora, who opened a jar (which somehow over the years became a box) filled with “countless plagues,” and loosed evil upon the world.

Walter Crane, illustration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys, 1893

Jump ahead to the 19th century, and curious women—Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, et al.— become subjects of a new literary genre, the novel of adultery. Besides dying for their infidelity, these literary heroines turned “curiosity” into a euphemism for “erotic” and “pornographic,” and, according to Etymology Online, the word is still often used to mean “eager to know, inquisitive …in a bad sense.” Think of the image of the old lady behind the curtain with her binoculars spying on her neighbors etched into our culture. (And of course, there was my mother.)

Today, however, we live in a culture that seems once more to value curiosity. Einstein supposedly said he wasn’t unusually smart, just “passionately curious.” “Be curious,” intones Tortein Hagen, President/CEO of Viking Cruises. Comedian and raconteur Stephen Fry, writes, “Incuriosity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is.”

  I wonder if the difference between curiosity as annoying, even harmful, and curiosity as leading to extraordinary benefits to humankind doesn’t go back to the word’s early connection with caring and concern: whether one is curious to know solely for the sake of knowing—for puffing up our egos, often at the expense of others—or knowing for the benefit of others.

And my twelve-step sponsor tells me to be curious because curiosity helps me care for myself. It has. Curiosity keeps me open to joy, less withdrawn, walled up, isolated. I am less stuck in the past, which means less critical of the present. I have fewer resentments. Fewer anxieties.

Recently, one of my geriatric friends sent a video of a song, “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” by country singer Toby Keith. Keith wrote the song as a tribute to Clint Eastwood, who, on his eighty-eighth birthday, was directing a new movie, and who when asked how he kept going, replied, “I get up every day and don’t let the old man in.”

Clint Eastwood in The Mule. 2018

Now, I have a lot of respect for Eastwood (well, I’m not crazy about his politics), and the video is good, but instead of trying to avoid the Old Man, I think I’d rather invite the Old Man in for hot chocolate and ask him questions about how he’s coping with his age—the benefits, the drawbacks. We might compare a few notes.

            To pick up on what I wrote in the last blog, seeing myself as pilgrim prods me to be as curious about the various landscapes through which I walk every day as I am when I’m walking through Scotland or Tanzania.

            And that includes the landscape of aging.

           

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Leaving “the Little Lightless Caverns”

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I waste too much time in the little lightless caverns of my own mind.”

—Christian Wiman

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            My first wife used to say to me, “Rick, you think too much.”

            It pains me to say it, but she was right. I can turn anything into a problem to be solved: what I want for breakfast, what clothes I want to wear for the day (I’m retired, for godssake, who cares what I wear?), where I want to go for a morning walk, whether I want to go first to the grocery store and then to the hardware store (well, the grocery store is closer and if I get delayed there, I can always wait until tomorrow to do the hardware store) or go first to the hardware story and then to the grocery store (but because the grocery store is closer, I need to get the refrigerated items home before they spoil).

            So that by lunchtime I’m tired out (and then do I want a nap or should I read?).

            Minor stuff, I know, but as I look back at my life, I see that overthinking has caused me and those around me serious problems. Part of the reason I almost flunked out of college was because I waffled about not only what career path to follow, but also whether I wanted to join a fraternity, ask Ginny out or Pat, hang out with jocks or artsy types, take a year off.

            In later years, I agonized over if I should get married, go to graduate school, take a college or a high school teaching job, join a church (what denomination?), join the Rotary, or tell my first wife I was unhappy in our marriage.

            After my daughter died, my mind became a prison. When all my efforts to understand why a previously healthy and happy 18-year-old should suddenly die from a rare cancer—radon in our water supply, McDonald’s cutting down rain forests, accident, fate, God wanting “another angel in heaven,”(all reasons people gave me)—failed, I decided I had to be the one to blame, either because Laurie’s mother and I divorced or because we didn’t divorce soon enough. For several years, the only relief I could find was through alcohol and anger, both of which threatened not only my life but the lives of those close to me.

            As I’ve written before in these blogs, I credit meditation with first helping me see the destructive nature of thoughts and to unload much of my anger and shame—give it to God, as one of my first mentors suggested.

But meditation can become its own “little lightless cavern,” as poet Christian Wiman calls his mind: a place to escape an argument or a fear or a resentment by retreating into old patterns of thinking. (What will I have for breakfast, what shall I wear today…)

            So, what else has helped?

            Seeing myself as the Geriatric Pilgrim has become more than a literary conceit. Looking at life as a pilgrimage has taught me to be curious, to look for surprises, to live without planning every single detail, to put myself in uncomfortable situations (even if it’s just going for a walk and having no destination or closing my eyes before grabbing a shirt to wear for the day). I’ve learned to embrace the unknown—including a Higher Power totally outside my understanding, and to look for evidence of that Higher Power—what I would call grace—all around me.

            A pilgrimage always involves some type of movement, whether it’s walking Saint Cuthbert’s Way or walking downtown. Despite having grown up playing sports, I’ve never paid more attention than I do these days to movement. Yes, regular exercise has long been known to improve and maintain key aspects of cognitive function such as attention, learning, and memory, but neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert posits that our brains evolved, not to think or feel, but to produce adaptable and complex movements. He points out that it’s a lot easier to create a computer that thinks than to create a computer which can move anything like we do. (If you’d like to learn more see https://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_wolpert_the_real_reason_for_brains.)

For the last year and a half, I’ve been practicing the Feldenkrais Method of exercise therapy, learning to reorganize connections between the brain and body, which has improved both the way I move and the way I think, helping me pay less attention to my mind and more attention to my heart and my gut—my instincts.

            The slogans of Al Anon, the 12-step program for families and friends of alcoholics, have become my roadmap on this pilgrimage out of the caverns of my mind. When I first started attending meetings and saw slogans set out on the floor, I thought, “God, how simplistic!” Another example of how thinking can mislead me. Try following a few of these slogans and see how simple they are. To give just one example, let’s look at “One Day at a Time.”

            What’s so hard about that? Well, for someone like me—and, I find, many people who’ve grown up in alcoholic families, who continually try to anticipate and resolve every problem they think they may encounter, attempting to make decisions on information they don’t have—it’s damn hard. Instead of responding to what’s in front of me, both the challenges and the gifts that come my way, I’m obsessing about all the possibilities (most of them bad) that might befall me, even though, looking back over the almost 80 years of my life, I can say that not once did any of this preparation spare me a single moment of pain. In fact, it just lengthened my suffering.

            Still, at my age, it’s hard for me not to think about—which in my case means understand, anticipant, awfulize—my death. It was helpful this week to hear a podcast in which Ariel Burger, protégé and friend of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel, talk about Wiesel’s teaching that there are no answers to life’s big questions, only responses.

            So, I’m trying to respond to these questions by breaking them into small daily tasks. Instead of trying to answer the question, how can my grandchildren survive in a world that seems to be hurtling toward destruction, I focus what I can do with them today. If I’m worried about the Supreme Court or the swelling in my jaw, what can I do about either one today? Call my senator? Pop into the walk-in clinic (which I did this weekend. It’s “an obstructed parotid gland”)? Then it’s time to go for a walk, pick up a banjo, write a poem or a blog. Get out of my head.

            In other words, as one of the AA’s oldest slogans puts it, “Move a muscle, change a thought.”

            And leave a little lightless cavern.

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A Walk in the Rain

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I haven’t taken a walk in the rain for years, but after sitting in front of a computer screen for what seems like a week, I need some air. Putting on my rain gear—jackets, pants, and boots—I feel old, stiff, bent over. As dreary as Maine in mud season on a rainy day.

I used to walk in the rain a lot, especially during what I refer to as “my other life.” I did it to escape a failing marriage, which I remember as one rainy day after another anyway. I walked in the woods and along the rocky ocean shores in Down east Maine, feeling the rain and fog against my face, smelling the sea, and hearing the loons’ mournful cry out of the fog, “ooh, ooh, oooooh.” Wet rocks glistened, as if they were crying, and more than once I slipped or fell trying to walk on wet seaweed. All of which mirrored how I felt about my life.

I remember my tears as I walked in the rain, usually head down, hunched over, my hands deep in my pockets, back to the Ronald McDonald House from the hospital where my daughter lay dying of cancer, the cold wind off the river blowing pellets of fear into my heart.

But there’s no ocean shore here, no river, just a housing development and a lot of puddles. As I walk out the door and into the street, reflections of the trees overhead in these puddles double the number of branches so that I feel surrounded by trees, lost in trees above and below me. It’s a strange sensation, but not at all an unpleasant one, a disappearing into the landscape, and I find myself wondering if, when I die, death isn’t going to be something like this. If it is, I think, it won’t be so bad.

Earlier in the day, it rained hard, but now the rain is light, tap-dancing on the hood of my raincoat. I remember Gene Kelly, tap-dancing and singing “Singing in the Rain,” the first movie I think I ever saw in a drive-In theater. This would have been in the early to mid 1950s, and I’m pretty sure the local drive-in had just opened. My parents bundled us three kids into our pjs and the back seat of our 1948 Ford to see what I later studied in a film class as the quintessential movie musical. What I recall most clearly is, as Kelly splashed through the puddles crooning “dancin’ and singin’ in the rain,” (check the scene out on YouTube; I guarantee you’ll feel better), my father muttering, “damn fool’ll probably be in bed for week with pneumonia.”

I start thinking of other rain-songs. When I first began paying attention to music on the radio, there was Johnny Raye, a pre-Elvis teenage heartthrob, singing “Just Walkin’ in the Rain.” A line from a Sinatra ballad comes drizzling down from the clouds: “Here’s that rainy day they told me about…” And when I was in high school, I remember the Everly Brothers singing, “I do my Cryin’ in the Rain.”

The next thing I know, I’m on my knees in wet dirt, cutting beet greens in the rain as it beats a rock & roll rhythm on my yellow rubber slicker. (And were they hot!) God, this memory must be from sixty years ago. For four summers, I worked in a market garden with some high school buddies for a guy who was one of the first in the area to package vegetables for local supermarkets. I still have a faint scar on my left index finger from when my wet knife slipped and added some bloody protein to the beet greens. Still, if the rain kept up and we were lucky, we’d get to work inside, washing greens and flirting with the girls who packaged them, while we listened to the Everly Brothers on a small radio on a shelf in the corner.

Not for the first time, I realize that one of those workdays in the garden would kill me now—that it’s all I can do to kneel and get up, let alone do any work on my knees.

Still, after heart surgery, I’m happy to be able to walk at all.

I decide to cut across behind the houses to the power line, where the remaining patches of ice glisten in last year’s wet leaves.

I head into the woods, still thinking about rain songs (I can’t remember what day of the week it is, but I can remember songs): “Rain Drops,” by Dee Clark. “A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall,” by Bob Dylan. “Rainy Days and Mondays,” by the Carpenters. “Have you ever seen the Rain,” by Credence Clearwater Revival.

There’s also Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women,” but that’s about smoking pot. Which makes me wonder if I’m sorry never to have smoked the stuff. Of course, I can do it legally now. There’s a cannabis dispensary just up the street. But the last thing an addictive personality like mine needs is something else to get hooked on. I’ll stick to chocolate. Come to think of it, a cup of hot chocolate would be good when I get home.

It’s raining harder now, more of a tattoo than a tap-dance. I tighten my hood and think back twenty-some years to when Mary Lee and I were in Edinburgh, Scotland in a driving rain, attending the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the annual performance of military bands on the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. Even under a downpour, the place was packed, all of us sitting in our rain gear, peering down at the soldiers who looked like performing undersea creatures in kilts. Despite the rain—or maybe being drenched seemed to make us all feel a little closer to each other, laugh a little more—it was a great evening, one of those joyful times that makes me grateful for the gift of life, despite—or again, maybe because of—the various hardships and disappointments I’ve experienced.

I follow a slippery path up a rise and through the trees to a pond, dimpled today by the rain. The ice is gone, and at the further end, I hear the first wood-frogs of the spring, their breeding calls sounding like ducks quacking. “Winter is over,” they (sort of) sing, “time to make a little love!”

Mmmm. I suddenly feel younger. I start planning this weekend’s date night with my wife.

Somewhere, off to my right, a woodpecker adds more rhythm to the day. Which may mean the grubs and other insects are out or that it, too, is looking for a mate. Either way, another sign of spring.

The rain is letting up, the sky is clearing, and I find myself disappointed. Yes, rain is traditionally associated with crying and sadness, but I feel watered, rejuvenated, if you will, like a withered plant who’s just been tended to.

I head for home, more—do I dare say it?—spring in my step.

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Navigating the Death of an Ex

Several years after her death, I visited the grave sites of my ex and our daughter

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I have been with my parents during their final hours. I have witnessed my daughter take her last tortured breaths. I am watching old friends die almost monthly. Still, I’ve never felt such a mix of emotions as I did when I stumbled across my ex-wife’s obituary in the newspaper.

Happily remarried for thirty years, I’d had no contact with her since our daughter’s death four years after the divorce. Since that time, I seldom thought of my first marriage except as a twenty-year mistake, most of the mistakes being hers.

But now I felt weak. I found myself thinking, if only we’d stayed in our first house instead of moving back to her hometown, we might have made the marriage work. If only we’d seen a marriage counselor. If only I’d gone for a PhD and become a college professor instead of remaining a high school English teacher…

Then I thought, if my ex and I had stayed married, I wouldn’t be with Mary Lee, who showed me what marriage can be, who was the reason I didn’t drink myself to death when Laurie died, who makes me believe God really does exist. There’s no way I could be happier than I am now.

For weeks, I felt like a racquetball, caroming off walls of shock, relief, regret, and gratitude.

But there was no one to talk with about how I felt. No action I could take. When my mother and father died, my brother, sister, and I shared memories. We purchased another stone for the family cemetery to decorate on Memorial Day. After Laurie died, I found groups like Compassionate Friends with whom I could talk. I made contributions for cancer research. I counseled other grieving parents.

But I couldn’t put a memorial stone for my ex-wife in our family lot. And while Mary Lee was sympathetic—she’d spent an afternoon listening to a friend describe her conflicted feelings after her ex died—I couldn’t talk to her about the “if onlys” and the “what ifs” of my first marriage, the experiences only my ex and I shared, especially with our daughter. I was now the only one alive to remember Laurie’s first steps as she stumbled between her mother and me, or my sitting with her mother during our daughter’s first piano recital, or the three of us decorating the Christmas tree.

First steps.

Add loneliness to the emotional cesspool in which I swam.

Then, during a meeting of the 12-step program to which I belong, when my emotions about my ex-wife’s death swarmed like black flies, I shared that when I’d gone away to college, I anticipated getting away from my dysfunctional family, but that my mother’s shame and my father’s angry resentments had come with me. My grades were lousy. I sat alone in the back of the college den, bitterly envious of the laughing fraternity brothers and sorority sisters I saw at the front tables yet afraid to make conversation with anyone around me for fear they would reject me for being the loser I thought I was.

Driving home after the meeting, I realized how being a child of alcoholism had drawn me into marrying the only child from a closely knit family with strong Yankee values who seemed confident and strong, who, I thought, would offer me the stability I craved.

 I started to realize how being that child had also contributed to the breakup of my marriage. How, to keep feeling safe and secure, I never expressed any of my own needs. How I used sarcasm or said, “I’m sorry” without meaning it to avoid arguments. How I worked long hours at school to gain respect from my students and to avoid problems at home. How I built up resentments like building blocks until they finally came crashing down around us.

I found myself feeling not only more compassion for my ex, but also for the marriage itself. We did remain married for twenty years. At least ten of them were pretty good. Most important, we created an intelligent, beautiful, compassionate daughter, who, although she died at eighteen, continues to inspire me every day. There’s no way in the world I could wish Laurie had never happened.

With the help of my 12-step sponsor, I began to see the best way—maybe the only way—for me to grieve my ex’s death was to honor the good times in our marriage and learn from the mistakes I made and not repeat them.

I wrote a letter to my sarcasm, thanking him for helping me get through some ugly times, but saying his services were no longer needed and it was time for him to retire to a condo in Florida.

I worked to become more honest, more open in my relationships with others. Probably because of our struggles to understand each other after Laurie’s death, Mary Lee and I had usually been able to speak openly with each other, but I made even more of an effort. With other people, I tried to listen more, wait (a 12-step acronym, by the way, for “Why Am I Talking?) before reacting, and focus on “I” statements—“I feel…” “I see it this way…”—rather than “you” statements—“You’re wrong…” “You don’t understand…” “You need to …”—when I did respond. (Which has also helped me talk with Mary Lee, come to think of it.)

Since the advent of COVID—and now with the events in Ukraine—I’m learning another lesson from my first marriage. I was drawn to my ex because she made me feel strong and secure. As she and I discovered, however, the world is not a safe place: I brought my dysfunctional family behavior into our marriage; both she and I underwent major surgeries; our daughter died of a rare cancer. Mary Lee and I are in our seventies and although we’re vaccinated and still mask, we’re at risk. I’ve had more surgery; she’s prone to pneumonia. I’m watching more and more friends die from other causes—cancer of the jaw, Parkinson’s, heart disease—and I find myself wanting to hunker down, stay home, or perhaps sell our house and move into a continuing care facility as some other friends are doing because they feel they’ll have more security.

But looking at the failure of my first marriage helps me see real strength comes not from trying to avoid risk, but from living with curiosity, honesty, and love, both for my family and for myself.

Which is why at the beginning of last summer, Mary Lee and I found a window between the waves of pandemic to take a European cruise. I’ve called a contractor to do some remodeling of our house. We both volunteered to facilitate adult programs.

On the Rhine

And in the years to come? I can’t know, of course. I expect that my family’s history of heart disease and cancer will hunt me down. Grieving my ex-wife’s death, however, has helped me see that I can’t let the desire for stability dictate the way I live my life.

Been there. Done that. Didn’t work.

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