Listening to the Breath

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“There is no song more agreeable to the heart than the slow, even breath of a pilgrim learning to bless, and be blessed by, the mystery.” — Stephen Levine.

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Mary Lee and I are training for our next pilgrimage. We’re increasing the length of our walks, trying to step up our pace, and climbing hills. It’s the climbing business that I especially need to work on. We didn’t plan for hills on our last pilgrimage, and I don’t want to make that mistake again.

Rarely a day goes by that I don’t curse the Monday afternoon in 1961, two days after the State Class L Basketball Championship (where, despite my solid performance, our team was crushed, 74-52), when I filched a pack of my father’s unfiltered Camels and spent the afternoon learning how to inhale and the next forty years trying to quit. Throw in two summers inhaling woodfire smoke as part of my job as a U.S. Forest Service hot shot crew member (wearing a bandanna over my nose and mouth to keep the smoke away and then taking a break to sit under a tree and smoke a cigarette or two), and you have my scarred lungs and “mild” COPD.

But I’m finding it’s possible to increase my lung capacity. The internet is full of video instructions in breathing for singers, saxophone and harmonica players, swimmers, and the rest of us just plain folks. My osteopath is a firm believer in breathing correctly and has given me exercises to make sure I’m using all of what lung capacity I have. I’ve recently added a breathing activity based on a type of exercise therapy called Feldenkrais. And I’m tramping up and down stairs and hills any time I get the chance.

Breath, I’m finding, is a great teacher. After being physically abused at her daycare center, our granddaughter struggles with anger issues. Her counselor’s office has a “breathing ball” which expands and contracts as our granddaughter practices taking ten deep breaths for when she gets mad. We should all probably have one. Research shows that a period of deep breathing causes blood pressure to drop and stay down for as long as thirty minutes.

I think the first times I ever paid any attention to my breathing were when I played sports. My little league coach, Frank Knight, told us to take a deep breath before getting in the batter’s box, and Mr. Beal, my eighth-grade basketball coach, told us to do the same thing as we stepped to the line to take a foul shot. Fast forward forty years, and my nurse is yelling, “breathe!” the first time I try to walk after bi-lateral hip surgery. These days, my scarred lungs let me know whenever I’m tense or self-conscious—about reading or playing my banjo in front of an audience, for example—and that it’s time to pretend I’ve got my granddaughter’s breathing ball and inhale and exhale deeply.

Using the breath in some way is the basis for almost every meditation practice I know. Breath is immediate and always there. Focusing on breathing brings us back into the present moment, whether it’s pranayama, a yoga tool for self-transformation in which one varies the length of inhalation and exhalation, or Buddhist practices like counting breaths and inhaling through the nostrils and exhaling through the mouth, or Christian Centering Prayer using mantras such as “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” or “Breath of God, breathe in me” that follow the rhythm of our breathing, or the practice I’ve found in all three traditions of simply watching the breath without trying to control it.

Breath can be a constant reminder of our connection with the energy of the universe. Focusing on the breath helps me see myself as part of a world breathing its own rhythms: the ebb and flow of the sea, the waxing and waning of the moon, the inhalations of spring and summer and the exhalations of autumn and winter. I see my life as a kind of breathing: inhaling moments such first love, first teaching job, marriage, the birth of a child, first pilgrimage, the birth of grandchildren; exhaling houses I’ve left, an unhappy marriage, the death of my daughter and my parents, jobs I have retired from, and now, the death of old friends.

Trying to observe my breathing without trying to control it (which is really hard, by the way; I’m guessing I can come close maybe one day out of every four) helps me understand the mystery of Grace, which, like my breathing, is always flowing, continually feeding, repairing, sustaining, while at the same time taking away that which is unnecessary and wasteful. Whether it’s Grace or breath, I can control to some extent how much I take in, I can work on preparing myself to better use it, but I can’t hold on to it, and the only way to stop it is to destroy myself.

So, as I prepare for the next pilgrimage, breath is teaching me what I can do, what I cannot do, and what I can learn to do. It’s a kind of Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the hills I cannot climb, the courage to know when to keep gasping up the ones I can, and the wisdom to know when to stop and catch my breath.”

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The Frames I see Through

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For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, I recently decided to make a pilgrimage to the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine where my daughter Laurie died almost thirty years ago of cancer. My specific destination was the hospital chapel where I’d spent so much time during the last six weeks of her life, and where I encountered perhaps the closest thing I’ve ever had to a “spiritual” experience.

The chapel hadn’t changed at all that I could see: same walnut paneled walls and altar, same cushioned chairs; the familiar hum of air conditioning punctuated by occasional voices in the hall, and, what I most remember, the large round window framed by red, yellow, brown, and blue panels, through which I could see the Penobscot River flowing downstream over the rocks—a living stained-glass window.

I sat as I used to on the left side of the altar in front of the window and thought of that surrealistic time and of my struggles to understand my daughter’s illness and impending death. But while I could recall the details, I could no longer feel the waves of anger that sometimes surged around the numbness in my heart. It was as if I were watching myself thirty years earlier, sorry for the poor bastard and all that he was going through, but at the same time more emotionally concerned with life now—working my 12-step program, dealing with the diminishments of aging and my apprehensions about dying.

Then I thought of my daughter’s dying in a room two floors above me, and about how I used to look out her hospital window at the same river, but how different the view here in the chapel was because of the shape of the window and its stained-glass frame. Which led me to consider the various ways I’ve framed events in my life, and on how often the way I’ve framed a particular incident has determined how I’ve responded to it.

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I remember hearing from one of my college English Literature professors that 18th Century travelers, uncomfortable—even afraid—of the uninhabited natural world, would carry empty picture frames with them in order to frame their views of the Alps. I can’t find anything on line about those traveling frames, but I have found that many travelers during this period put a convex tinted filter on a frame called a “Claude Glass.” Apparently, they would sit with their backs to a scene, holding the folding glass so they could see behind them. The convex shape of the frame brushed background objects into the far distance and the tinted glass softened the reflected tones in order to make settings look like the paintings of the popular 17th century French artist, Claude Lorraine.

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You can still buy Claude Glass frames today. This one isn’t tinted.

These frames helped control and tame what travelers were seeing. They also gave a distorted picture of reality. I don’t know about you, but the way I’ve framed events in my life has often done the same thing. My 12-step sponsor talks about our “frame of reference,” the values and attitudes which we use to filter perceptions to create meaning. Our frame becomes our assumptions, our “shoulds.” And it is these frames, not the events themselves, that we react to emotionally. As the Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote some two thousand years ago: “Men [sic] are disturbed not by things but by the view they take of them.”

I’ve become aware lately that my frame of reference is often one created from growing up in an alcoholic family, so that for most of my life I’ve framed events by judgments, resentments, and fear of confrontation. Thirty years ago, when I sat in the chapel at EMMC, I judged myself responsible for my daughter’s death because I had left her mother and married another woman. Rather than confront my ex-wife when she said that she wasn’t going to honor Laurie’s request for her ashes to be scattered, I refused to come to our daughter’s burial service.

With the help of my sponsor I’ve been working to “re-frame” my view of the world—looking at situations from different angles, shifting my frame of reference.

And I wonder if I went back to the chapel a couple of weeks ago because at some level I knew I needed to learn something from the time my frame of reference dramatically changed.

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Thirty years ago, when I went to the hospital chapel I saw the events around me through the frame of “Why is my daughter dying?” None of the answers—cutting down rain forests is increasing cancer rates, her cancer is a statistical accident like getting struck by lightning, God is a sadistic bastard getting kicks from torturing innocent girls, and, of course, her death is my fault—did anything to relieve her pain, and only increased my suffering.

And still, “Why?” was the question that pounded in my blood as I sat in the chair on the left side of the altar and stared for the first time through the stained-glass frame at the river roiling in a December wind.

But as I sat, I became enfolded into the window, and from somewhere I heard the words, “Don’t ask why, just ask for help.”

At first, I didn’t realize what I’d heard. When I did, I angrily framed it, OK, help me understand the reason for my daughter’s pain and why she’s going to die before she’s ever really lived.

But I couldn’t take my eyes from the window. I felt my body loosen. The stained glass seemed to keep drawing first my angry words and then all of me into its embrace.

I didn’t understand then—in fact, I may not have fully understood until now—how the words “Don’t ask why, just ask for help” encouraged me to reframe Laurie’s death, shift the question from “Why is my daughter dying?” to “How do I cope with the death of a child? How do I find the help I need? How do I gain the courage to ask for that help?”

But it was through seeking the help of counselors, spiritual directors, my wife, my family, and the grace of the God of My Not Understanding that my life has been one of not only deep sadness but great joy.

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The older I get, the more my pilgrimages involve relearning the lessons I first learned years ago. It would be great if I’d fused “don’t ask why, just ask for help” into my frame of reference thirty years earlier, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. I still ask myself, “Why can’t people think the way I do, act as I act?” instead of asking, “How do I get the help I need to speak my truth with kindness and not worry about what others think or how they behave?” Or instead of asking, “Why am I going to die?” asking, “Who and what can help make what time I have left as productive and joyful as possible?”

Claude Lorraine
Claude Gellée (Lorrain) – The Metropolitan Museum of Art 47.12. Title: Sunrise. Date: c. 1646-1647. Materials: oil on canvas. Dimensions: 102.9 x 134 cm. Nr.: 47.12. Source: http://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/ep/original/DT226758.jpg. 

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On Emptiness

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Gazing at the figure, I felt a physical reaction, a shiver, or perhaps more like the quiver of a struck bell. And I guess I wasn’t the only one who resonated to Romanian artist Albert Gyorgy’s “Melancolie”: the sculpture went viral on Facebook a few weeks ago. I wasn’t surprised that many comments came from viewers who’d suffered a great loss. A fellow grieving father responded: “We may look as if we carry on with our lives as before. We may even have times of joy and happiness. Everything may seem ‘normal.’ But THIS, ‘Emptiness,’ is how we feel … all the time.”

Later that same week, I mentioned to an old friend that the hole left in my heart by the death of my daughter would never go away. He seemed surprised and upset. “I had no idea,” he said. “I thought because you’re a Christian, your faith would sustain you. I feel sorry for you.”

No, I wanted to say, don’t feel sorry for me. My faith does help me. My life isn’t sad. My life is in some ways more joyful than it’s ever been. I continue to have a close relationship with Laurie. I—

And as I felt myself thrashing about, frustrated at not having the words to describe what it’s like to lose a child, I realized what an intricate and perplexing landscape this emptiness through which I journey really is.

There’s the idea of emptiness as Void, empty of meaning. It’s a frightening place. When my ex-wife phoned me with the news that what we’d always thought was a harmless sebaceous cyst on the back of our daughter’s head was malignant, I felt the ground opening under my feet. I remember needing to grab on to the counter I was standing beside. Mary Lee has since told me that when I picked her up at school later that day and she opened the door to the car, she felt an icy emptiness even before I told her the news.

The title of the sculpture, “Melancolie,” or melancholy, refers back to medieval medicine and to one of the four “humours,” black bile, thought to cause what we today call depression. This, too, is a kind of emptiness, at least when I look at some of the therapy websites that define emptiness as “a negative thought process leading to depression, addiction…”—both of which I’ve stumbled through since Laurie died.

But over those same years, I’ve also found that emptiness can be something to cultivate rather than cure.

My first readings about emptiness were from existentialists like Albert Camus, who saw meaninglessness as a reality of life, but who posited that we can and should create our own meaning. From there, I dabbled in Buddhism, where Emptiness is a central precept. But as I understand it, Buddhists do not believe life is meaningless; rather, that our images of ourselves as separate, independent entities don’t exist: they’re delusions, empty of meaning. When we can understand this meaning of emptiness, we realize that we are part of what the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being,” which is the basis for wisdom, bliss, compassion, clarity, and courage.

Then, as I’ve written about before in these blogs, I learned a form of Christian meditation called “Centering Prayer,” which is based on “kenosis,” or “self-emptying.” As Saint Paul wrote in Philippians: Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave ….” Notice how many of the parables in the Bible advocate giving up everything, whether it’s Jesus telling the young man to give up his money and possessions and follow him, or the Good Samaritan giving up his money and time to minister to the man who’d been beaten and robbed, or the servant condemned for burying his one Talent.

And it was through practicing kenosis—entering into the emptiness I felt after Laurie died, giving up my image of myself as grieving parent—that I was able to feel Laurie’s renewed presence in my life. (For more on my experiences with Centering Prayer, see https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/06/)

Lately, I’ve been working a 12-Step program based on surrender, which as a speaker I heard recently said, “only happens when there’s nothing left.” Only when circumstances force you to see that all of your props, your addictions, have not only proved worthless in giving you what you need, but are actually keeping you unhappy, is it possible for you to give them up, empty yourself of them.

And yet. No matter how much I read about the subject, how often Laurie’s spiritual presence fills my emptiness, my daughter’s physical absence burns like an amputation. I will never have the chance to watch her face grow more interesting as it ages, never watch her take up a vocation, fall in love, perhaps have children.

And maybe that’s the price we pay for loving someone. A friend of mine who lost her husband a year ago recently sent me the following quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor and theologian:

Nothing can fill the gap when we are away from those we love, and it would be wrong to try to find anything. We must simply hold out and win through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time, it is a great consolation, since leaving the gap unfilled preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. He does not fill it but keeps it empty so that  our communion with another may be kept alive, even at the cost of pain.

So, emptiness for me is another landscape through which I pilgrimage—four steps forward, three steps back, two steps side-ways, circling, backtracking. Sometimes the views are bleak and dismal and the path is strewn with the rocks and roots of depression and addiction, but more and more often these days, as I’ve surrendered my seventy-year-old resentments at people long gone from my life, my judgmentalism, my shame over not being perfect, I’ve seen some magnificent vistas, felt fresh air tickling what little hair I have left, heard birds singing hymns of grace.

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The Carnival Wheel

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An out-of-key calliope brays and a tinny voice cuts through the night: “Round and round she goes, and where she stops, nobody knows!” Neon lights blaze from the food booths, their greasy smells mingling with those of horse manure and engine oil. The ground under my feet shakes from the vibration of motors turning rides like “The Thriller” and “The Dragon Wagon.” Mary Lee and I tiptoe around a mud puddle, buy a bottle of water, and sit on a bench in front of the Big Eli Wheel, or, as I used the call it when I was growing up, the Ferris Wheel.

Off and on for the past seventy years, I’ve been making a pilgrimage to some version of this carnival. These days, Smokey’s Greater Shows is part of Yarmouth Maine’s Clam Festival, a three-day celebration featuring a parade, artists and artisans, music, games, and clams fixed in just about every possible way. Compared to the downhome atmosphere that surrounds it, the carnival seems likes a drunken rhinestone cowboy who refuses to leave the block party. Still, I’ve always found an energy here absent from the tents up the street selling carved driftwood and Wicked Good Pickles.

In the early 1950’s, when the trucks first rolled through town—red and yellow letters along their sides and pictures of parrots and snakes and tigers or deformed men and mysterious women with almond shaped eyes, I’d stand straddling my bicycle on the sidewalk in front of faded white houses and rust-red stores, trying to get my breath, feeling the noise of the revved engines and ground gears, a hot rush of air tickling my crew cut, stinging my eyes, and pulling me along to the local baseball field where the carnival would set up for another July weekend.

My favorite days were Wednesdays and Thursdays before the carnival actually opened. I loved to watch the heavy-bellied men in brown fedoras setting up the Ferris Wheel, their eyes peering through the smoke of their cigarettes. Some men had mustaches, and some had tattoos of hearts or crosses or eagles—adornments I never saw on my father, or anybody else for that matter, in those Eisenhower days. The summer I was eleven or twelve, a carnie who my father said was “drunker than a skunk” climbed the Ferris wheel in pursuit of someone who’d been taunting him, slipped, and fell to his death. The Portland Press Herald ran a front-page picture of a semicircle of workers, their faces stained by shadows. Which confirmed what I already knew: these men were dangerous; and therefore, cool as hell.

When I was sixteen, the Ferris Wheel became new all over again when I rode it with the girl from Massachusetts I’d met that night: her leg against mine, her head resting against my arm across the back of the bench seat, the two of us alone in the night sky looking down on the world. This is how it will be, I thought, when I’m rich and famous—this feeling of rising out of this hick town and having everyone below gape up in admiration.

Almost sixty years later, I look up at the Big Eli Wheel. Metal and neon lights and florescent seats turn around and around, people ascending and descending, screaming and laughing, I think of how much of my life I’ve spent trying to leave the ordinary behind, rise above the overdeveloped shame and guilt that comes from growing up in an alcoholic family. In college, I loved climbing mountains and the god-like feeling I had when I reached the summits. After my daughter died, and I became interested in theology and spirituality, I discovered the word “transcendence,” a word meaning being in a state above or beyond the ordinary. I took up various forms of meditation, striving for “peak experiences” that would lift me from the pain of her death.

But the problem with thinking of transcendence as being at the top of a carnival ride is that the Ferris Wheel always returns to earth—that the gorgeous chick from Massachusetts says she’s sorry but she’s going steady with some guy back in Worchester. I find myself on a Wheel of Fortune on which my ego rises and falls, depending upon circumstances.

I’ve spent years on this wheel: one moment glorying in clouds of respect, love, and praise, convinced I’m a great teacher, a great writer, a great lover; and the next minute mired in depression, confusion, anger, feeling like an abysmal failure at everything I’ve ever done. Of knowing that God has anointed me with special favor; and then convinced that God is some kind of super sadist, playing with me the way a seven-year-old toys with an ant.

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The water bottle is empty, but I’m still contemplating The Big Eli Wheel. It rests on a turquoise, pink, yellow, and purple frame, pastel colored cabs with caps and room for four, like painted mushrooms, rising and falling. Spokes fan out from the center of the wheel.

More and more these days, I’m finding the best way for me to achieve serenity is not to try to rise above feelings like shame and guilt but to go more deeply into them, try to find their core, their center. And I’m wondering if, instead of being at the top of the wheel closer to the heavens, the God of My Not Understanding isn’t really at the center, anchoring me as I spin on Fortune’s wheel between heaven and earth, the spiritual and the profane, success and failure.

I watch two women in their early twenties, I’d guess, with dyed red hair walk by, and from the other direction, two guys with shaved heads and tattoos of screaming eagles, hearts and crosses. One guy says something and both women giggle. Everyone stops. They talk and giggle some more and then walk off together.

Mary Lee takes my hand. We stroll past a teen-aged couple with matching high school jackets, the carnival lights sparkling off their braces as they grin at each another. I see parents buying candy and going on rides with their children. A woman about our age laughs and waves to a little girl who’s probably her granddaughter riding the merry-go-round. A middle-aged couple in jeans comes towards toward us. They’re also holding hands. The man says, “Doctors say holding hands lowers blood pressure by fourteen per cent.” We all laugh.

And I know what’s holding my life together, in spite of all of its ups and downs: the same thing that centers my faith: what I’m looking for even more than transcendence.

Leaving the carnival, I look back at the Big Eli Wheel, circling between the pastel sky and the muddy ground strewn with popcorn and soggy napkins. The spokes radiating out from the center blaze in the setting sunlight.

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Food for the Journey

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Local market Selçuk, Turkey

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One of the joys of my various pilgrimages is remembering them: looking at the photographs, rereading journals, comparing notes with other people who’ve made the same journeys. I can always discover something I haven’t seen before. The other night, when Mary Lee and I were reminiscing about our 72-mile walking pilgrimage from Melrose, Scotland to the Island of Lindisfarne off the east coast of England, we found ourselves asking each other what foods we recalled. Remember when we got off the bus in Melrose, how hungry we were, and how good that ham and cheese toastie was? And that salmon in Dryburgh? Nothing was better that the lamb, though, in Jedburgh. Unless it was the scallops in Fenwick. And weren’t the chips always good, no matter where we were?

Which got me thinking that food has always been part of every pilgrimage I’ve ever been on: Brother Bernie’s blueberry pie the first time we went to what turned out to be our favorite retreat center; the falafel and shawarma, figs and dates in Israel; Scottish haigis (I actually like the stuff); ploughman’s lunches in England and once for breakfast, the largest kipper I’ve ever seen; Irish soda bread; New Mexican tamales; just about anything on the menu in San Francisco’s China Town; Turkish mezze platters; Nova Scotia seafood chowder.

Likewise, I often identify the stages of my life’s pilgrimages by the food I remember: the smell of the bread and rolls my mother baked every Saturday morning and the taste of butter melting on hot, yeasty dough; chicken fried steak and creamed sausage over biscuits when I worked for the Forest Service in Idaho; the pizza in Orono, Maine, where I went to college; pancakes soaked in Vermont maple syrup; baked beans and codfish cakes when I lived in Down East Maine; butterflied leg of lamb, new potatoes, and fresh corn on the cob with Mary Lee’s Wellesley Fudge Cake for dessert.

I’m not sure about the future, but based on my observation of the active octogenarians and nonagenarians I know, I expect I’ll eat a lot of oatmeal and ice cream.

Maybe because years of smoking have dulled my taste buds, or because I don’t cook, or because it’s just the way I see the world, food for me is seldom just food. For example, I think of food as romantic love. Yes, there is our traditional Valentine’s night out at a four-star restaurant, but thirty-two years ago, after Mary Lee and I stood on the rocks of Casco Bay with an Episcopal priest who blessed our civil marriage, the three of us went to the local pizza place, which is still where Mary Lee and I go on our anniversary. Even though we no longer live in town, we also try to stop there on the way home after being on a trip. Our love, one might say, is grounded in pizza.

When I had basketball practice in high school, my mother made the rest of the family wait to eat dinner until I got home. I really didn’t care if they waited for me and I think my father was pissed, but since then, I’ve read that one of the marks of successful, well-adjusted young people is that they eat dinner with their families—something that happens less and less in these days of individual TVs, computers, sports practices, and erratic work schedules. Food, then, helps bond the family unit.

Don’t most family celebrations revolve around food? Thanksgiving is the big one for us. Ever since Mary Lee and I were living in a small apartment, with next to no money, beginning our lives all over again at the age of forty, we hosted our families—adults sitting on couches with TV trays, children on the stairs, so that grandparents could sit at our tiny dining room table. (Not that we had a dining room.) We felt it important to make both sides of our families know they were part of our new lives. Now, as the oldest members of our families, we host not only Thanksgiving, but also often Christmas, Easter, and birthdays, as a way to stay connected to the next generations.

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How many photographs do you have of holiday meals?

Food is friendship. After my weekly Men’s Group meeting at our church, most of us go for coffee at a local bakery, where I have some kind of muffin, scone, or coffee cake, savoring the calories and the conversation. Every month or so, I join the ROMEOs (Retired Old Men Eating Out) from the high school class of 1961 at an area restaurant for lunch. Sometimes, we search out new places for German or Indian or Japanese food; other times we return to old standbys for fish & chips, burgers, and fried clams. But the kind and quality of the food is not the reason we’re often the first customers to arrive, and some of the last to leave.

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The ROMEOS (R.I.P. Scott)

When my non-church going friends ask me why I go to church every week and several times a day when I’m on retreat, I say I go to be fed. I don’t know what happens to that wafer and wine on Sunday, but I’ll take it. And do. Not to mention the refreshments at coffee hour, the pot luck suppers, picnics, and other meals our church serves.

During a brief flirtation with Buddhism, I attended six-hour sesshins, which, besides silent meditation, included walking meditation, talking meditation, and eating meditation. At the end of the day, we were served tea and a cookie. That cookie was the best tasting cookie I’ve ever eaten. A year or so later, after I’d decided I was a Christian and had stopped going to these sesshins, I discovered those same cookies in the grocery store. I brought them home and made a cup of tea. At my kitchen table, away the Zen community which had fed me, those same cookies tasted like cardboard.

So, maybe the lesson here—for me at least—is that the meals I remember have less to do with food, and more to do the people who’ve been with me when I’ve eaten that food. In the Bible’s Gospel of John, Jesus alienates the religious authorities and loses many of his followers when he talks about being “the bread of life,” and that “whoever eats this bread will live forever.”  But I think I get it: looking back at my various pilgrimages, I have been fed more by the companionship (the word “companion” literally means “with bread”) than by the bread itself. And if I am to continue to live, not just exist, I need to be nourished by more than oatmeal and ice cream.

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On my mother’s 90th birthday, her church threw her a party,

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Roots

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“A tree stands strong not by its fruits or branches, but by the depth of its roots.”

— Anthony Liccione.

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Trees have always called to me, from the white pine tree I used to climb behind my house as a kid, to the stately Douglas Fir and Ponderosa pine I fought forest fires to save when I was in college, to the four-trunked maple tree in the back yard of my home for over twenty-years, to the mighty redwoods I visited a few years ago. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking more about the roots of trees than their trunks or branches, perhaps because I’ve been thinking a lot about my own roots.

In doing some reading about trees, I find that their roots can branch out seven times the height of the tree. When these roots interweave with other roots, they create a single organism. “You can think of a [tree] trunk as really fingertips on a buried hand,” writes ecosystem ecologist Dylan Fisher. The 106 acres of quaking aspen in Fishlake National Forest in Utah are all connected by one 80,000-year-old root system known as Pando, or The Trembling Giant. The trunks, branches, and leaves connected to this system weigh in at 6,600 tons, making this the heaviest known organism on earth.

In thinking of my own roots, I find they also spread out as least seven times beyond the family trunk. My trip to Canada last fall introduced me to an interconnected web of Wiles I never knew existed, stretching throughout southcentral Nova Scotia. My sister spent last year engaged in a genealogical pilgrimage, and has traced the names of our immediate family—Wile, Cleaves, Bennett, and Conrey—back to Reeds, Pooles, Hitchcocks, and Crocketts,  back further to  Whitneys, Davises, Rosses, and Hamiltons, and before that to Giles Corey, the only accused witch in Salem Massachusetts to have been pressed to death instead of hung (his last words were supposedly, “More weight!”), and Priscilla and John Alden (“Speak for yourself, John Alden”). Branching further back to England, my roots include Franklins, Densytes, and Mullins; and in Germany, the Weils, one of whom— Johann Frederich—emigrated to Nova Scotia.

Trees survive through their roots. Fungi infiltrate roots, not to attack but to partner with them, sharing nutrients across threads of what are called fungal hyphae that form what’s known as a mycelium web—a kind of underground internet, linking roots of different plants, helping one another with not only food, but information.  Jennifer Frazier, writing in Scientific American, describes how plants being eaten by herbivores release chemicals that are sensed by neighboring plants, who then increase their defenses. Paper birch send carbon to Douglas-fir seedlings, especially when they are shaded in summer, probably enhancing their survival. In spring and fall, the Douglas-fir return the favor when the birch have no leaves.

And what’s my mycelium web? What nourishes me, gives me information, helps me survive? I have survived as long as I have because of my second wife, Mary Lee, who has been a beacon of love during the darkest days of my life and who continues to nourish me with laughter, eros, food, and friendship. Her children, her grandchildren, her friends, her sister and her sister’s children all grace me with their affection.

My oldest community is made up of the friends I grew up with, many of whom I still get together with regularly, either in person or electronically. Through them, I’m fed not only through stories that no one else but us know (and we’d just as soon keep it that way), but also by the sharing of our pilgrimages through life—our ups, our downs that both sadden and gladden my heart.

There are the teachers I’ve taught with who continue to inspire me with their wisdom, the writers in my various writing groups who educate and challenge me to, as Herman Melville put it, “dive deeper,” the musicians I jam with who bring song and rhythm to my life, the folks I take Communion to in nursing homes who sustain me with their inner strength and perseverance. The writers I’ve read, the records, tapes, and CDs I’ve listened to, the chocolate I’ve eaten. There are the pilgrims I’ve met as I’ve journeyed to my roots, whether they be family homesteads in New England and Nova Scotia or the roots of my faith in Jerusalem, Ephesus, Iona, and Lindisfarne.

More and more as I age, I find my roots sustained by the unseen and the silent. “Everything you see has its roots in the unseen world,” wrote the Persian poet, Rumi. The Jewish Kabbalah’s mystical Tree of Life is pictured with its roots in heaven and its branches and leaves reaching down toward us. Many of the communities that nurture me are connected with this unseen world: my church, the Episcopal monastic order to which I’m an associate, the interfaith organization of contemplatives I belong to, the men’s group I attend Wednesday morning and the Al-Anon groups I attend.

During a recent Quiet Day at my church, I realized that one reason I’ve become concerned with roots is because mine have stopped growing. My only child died of cancer. My brother is gay. My sister’s only son and his wife cannot have children. Thus, my family name ends with my brother and me, and my family tree ends with my nephew and his wife. I found myself drawing the follow picture:

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But even dying trees can support not only their own species but other species as well. For example, according to Jennifer Frazier, when Douglas-fir begin to die, their roots, through fungi, send food to young ponderosa pine battling to survive.  I’d like to think that I might also nourish others who are struggling, through the stories, laughter, love of silence, perseverance, and music that have fed me through the years.

Probably one of the purposes of these blogs, come to think of it.

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And if you liked this blog, you might also be interested in reading:

“Call to the Redwoods”: https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/08/22/call-to-the-redwoods/

“Rooting Around”: https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2017/10/02/rooting-around/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dancing Lessons

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Christmas Prom 1960

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Just before hitting the “Publish” button for my last blog on the importance of music in my life, I heard this voice in my right ear, “Of course, your next blog is going to be about dancing.” Music and dancing are intertwined, sort of like going on retreat and making a pilgrimage. My feelings about dancing, however, are more complicated than they are about music. I have always loved music; I have not always loved dancing.

I want to blame Arthur Murray, who, it has been said, taught America to dance. In the 1950s, when I first discovered rock ‘n roll and girls, there were over 3000 Arthur Murray dance studios in the United States, one of which sent instructors (I remember him as 30-ish, with thinning hair, wearing a wrinkled tuxedo, and her as blond—bleached?—in a black strapless dress that showed off her legs and the run in her stocking) to Yarmouth, Maine to line us boys up on one side of the room and the girls on the other, leaving a no-man’s land between the sexes that I spent years trying to cross.

Apparently, Murray, whose given name was Moses Teichman, felt that dancing was how people could become more sophisticated and move, as he had, into a “better” class of society. So, along with the steps to the waltz, the foxtrot, the jitterbug, or the cha-cha, the instructors also taught etiquette. Young men, for example, were instructed to walk across the floor to the young ladies, bow, and say, “May I have this dance?”

I have to say, however, that if the aim at the Masonic Grange Hall was to teach refined behavior to seventh and eighth graders, it was not a good idea after having taught us the steps to blow a goddamned whistle. The scene turned to something resembling the kickoff of a football game, as barely-pubertal males raced across the floor, elbowing each other in an effort to get to the four or five girls with breasts, the fastest and dirtiest fighters skidding to a stop in front of them, yelling “My’vethisdance!” while the chosen ones stood giggling and the rest of the girls stared at the floor, waiting for the losers to get to them.

My first experiences with dancing, then, taught me to divide the world into us and them: boys and girls, fast and slow, winners and losers, all engaged in a fight for survival of the fittest. (Which was underlined the evening my partner and I won a dance contest. I can’t remember how we won, but it certainly wasn’t because of my dancing ability. I think she and I must have been standing in the spotlight when the music was stopped or something. Anyway, my prize was a switchblade knife, once the weapon of choice used by street gangs.)

When I reached high school, the record hops in the gymnasium at first perpetuated my sense that dancing was a battle, first with myself to get up the nerve to cross the no-man’s land between the guys standing along one wall and girls standing along the other, and then with her to find something to say or how close to get or where to put my hands.

Until one night, dancing suddenly became unlike anything I’d ever experienced: losing myself in another’s embrace, looking into the eyes of someone and seeing both her and myself for the first time, forgetting my adolescent self-consciousness in our interaction with each other and with the music. (I think the song was “Dream” by the Everly Brothers.)

Fast-forward twenty-five years. I’m in Princeton, New Jersey, evaluating high school essays for the College Board. The last night of the reading, a bunch of us teachers are in a bar, bouncing our middle-aged bones around the dance floor to a collection of golden oldies played by some kids in ripped tee-shirts.  When the band switches from “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” to “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” the woman I’ve been twisting with says, “Do you dance slow?”

Thirty-four years later, we still try to get in at least one slow dance a week.

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I wonder if the reason I feel called to write about dancing is to make me more aware of how the secular and the spiritual intertwine, and to reveal how my relationship with the God of my Not Understanding has changed and where it might be going.

When my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer, I thought my belief in God had died with her. But after a year of raging at my family, friends, students, the driver in the next car, and Boston sports teams, I realized, no, I’m really pissed off at God, which means I think God exists. Focusing my anger at God became the first step in what I think of as my pilgrimage through grief and grace. And almost thirty years after Laurie’s death, I still often feel like Jacob in the Old Testament, wrestling with, if not God, then with God’s angel.

On my desk, I have a copy of a Rilke poem, The Man Watching, in which the speaker praises those “wrestlers of the Old Testament,” who, “…beaten by this Angel/…went away proud and strengthened/and great…” Winning, Rilke writes, is not important to such a fighter, because

This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,

 By constantly greater beings.”

And yet during the last few years, as I’ve become more and more aware of having received the grace not only to survive Laurie’s death, but also to have lived, all in all, a happy life surrounded by love, I’ve started wondering if I’ve really been wrestling with God, or whether I’ve been engaged in a sort of dance, where all along, God has been trying to embrace me, take me into loving arms. And if it hasn’t been during those times when I have surrendered—let God lead, if you will—that I’ve received the grace to sustain me.

Both scientists and modern writers on spirituality tell us that everything in the universe —animals, vegetables, minerals, living and dead—is interconnected. Everything exists in relationship. The question for me these days (and I wonder if it isn’t a question this country is struggling to answer), is whether this relationship is going to be in the form of a wrestling match or a dance—whether when I look out my window at tree branches in the wind, I see the trees struggling against the elements or dancing to them; whether when I see someone of another color or another life-style coming toward me on the street, I see an opponent or a partner; whether I still see the world as us and them lined up on opposite sides of the floor, or whether I see just us, moving in harmony to the music.

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Prayer flags and daffodils, dancing—I like to think—in the wind.

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