Scars

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For fifty years, I’ve been facilitating writing groups of various kinds. Participants have ranged in age from fourteen to eighty. They’ve been students, white-collar professionals, blue-collar workers, unemployed, and homeless. Over that time, I’ve begged, borrowed, or stolen certain writing prompts that always seem to work, no matter who’s there. For example, when a group meets for the first time, and I want to avoid the standard introductions and at the same time establish an atmosphere of trust, I’ll have us (since I always write, too) write about our scars.

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Almost everyone begins by at least mentioning physical scars. Men, especially, seem proud of them. The other night, I was watching a Netflix series called Longmire, in which Sheriff Longmire has been stabbed and his female deputy Vic is helping him bandage the wound.

“You’ve got a lot of scars,” Vic says. “How many do you have?’

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“Come on. All men know how many scars they have.”

Silence. Then, “Twelve…thirteen now.”

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that women are becoming less reticent about their physical scars. Last October’s Cosmopolitan magazine ran a series of photographs of women proudly showing their mastectomy scars. Photographer Ami Barwell said in the press release, “These photographs show that, despite what they’ve been through, these women are empowered. They are strong, happy, and sexy.”

Scars are part of growing up, and in many cultures children are intentionally scarred when they reach puberty as part of sacred rituals to celebrate their becoming adults. Richard Rohr, whom I often reference in my blogs, wonders if the popularity of tattoos and body piercings these days isn’t a secular substitute for what young men and women once gained through circumcision, scarification, shaving of heads, and knocking out of teeth.

Our scars tell a story of our lives. My most unusual scar is the one on the inside of my right elbow that looks like a burn. I like to show it to people to see if they can guess what caused it. Most can’t, because the scar tells not only of my past but also of an era long ago and far away. When I was four years old, I was in the cellar with my mother one day while she was doing the weekly laundry in our wringer washing machine. Fascinated by the rotation of the rollers, I stuck my hand up to touch them. The next thing I knew, I was screaming as the wringers went round and round on my arm— the first of what we in my twelve-step program call our “goddamned learning experiences.”

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As I moved into something resembling adulthood, I scarred the back of my head when I fell down some school steps onto a broken bottle. I garnered several knife scars from working in a market garden cutting lettuce, spinach, and beet greens, and a black scar when my friend Jerry and I were sword fighting with pencils in a high school chemistry class. (The lead is still in my hand.) Recent X-rays of my scarred lungs remind me of the years in college I worked fighting forest fires, inhaling wood smoke for hours until I could take a break, get away from the smoke, and light up a cigarette.

As an adult, I have a two-inch scar on my back from a fusion of L-2 and L-3 vertebrae, which kept me out of Viet Nam. I have two hernia scars (I’ll spare you a photograph), and two longer scars from bi-lateral hip replacement that I’ve always thought of as resulting from the time after my daughter died, when, like Jacob, in the Old Testament, I wrestled with angels.

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But if we’re proud of our physical scars, we tend, I think, to hide our emotional ones. I’ve spent seventy years hiding the scars of shame, rejection, and fears of confrontation and failure caused by growing up in an alcoholic family. And the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie has left a scar that feels more like an amputation, one that, even after thirty years, gets ripped open every time I visit someone in the hospital or read in the newspaper about the death of a young person. (That scar has been ripped open a lot lately.)

For some reason, our physical scars, which almost always are signs that we’ve failed at something, make us proud, while our emotional scars, which often aren’t the result of anything we’ve done, but have had done to us, make us ashamed. Maybe it’s because our physical scars say: “I can take it. I’m not a victim. I’ve survived,” while our emotional scars say, “I should be stronger, more in control.” When Laurie died, I felt weak and powerless. I did not go to her funeral. I refused to run her obituary in the local newspaper. I had recurring dreams about old high school basketball teammates making fun of me for being uncoordinated and slow. In other words, I was ashamed of myself, not because of anything specific that I’d done or not done, but because of who I thought I was: a loser.

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As I reach the seventy-sixth year of my earthly pilgrimage, one of my goals is to become as proud of my emotional scars as I am of my physical ones. This Easter has helped. As a practicing Christian, I believe in resurrection. But this year, I realized that even the risen Christ carried the scars of his death. In fact, in one of the most famous of these stories, his disciple Thomas will not believe that Jesus is risen until, as Thomas says, “I see the mark of the nails in his hand, and put my finger in the mark of nails and my hand in his side…” Only when Thomas is able to do so does he cry, “My Lord and my God!”

It’s Jesus’s scars that show his disciples who he is; I need to realize it’s my scars—physical and emotional—that reveal not only who I am, but also the ways in which I’ve become resurrected.

Or, as Bill, living in the local homeless shelter after losing his construction career because he’d broken his back and become addicted to pain killers, but who, nonetheless, was trying to put his life back together by taking on on-line course in computers, wrote for one of my writing groups,

“Scars are the ledger of life. The reminders of when we lacked experience. Wounds are due to ignorance and inattention, apathy, and sometimes poor coincidence. Some we hide from others, some from ourselves. Some are shared with only a few. Some we display proudly. You would think scars are grievous things. In truth they are wondrous. Scars are badges of life’s ills and trepidations…healed.”

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Bedside Pilgrimage

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High School Graduation 1988. I can see the cyst on the back of my daughter’s head.

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For the last few months, up until his death from cancer, I regularly sat in a nursing and rehab center by the bed of an old friend. The long corridors, the smell of disinfectant, the sounds of TV sets, the charts on the walls of Scott’s room, the nurses with their clipboards, brought back memories of when my daughter Laurie was in the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine, and what I would now call my six-week pilgrimage through strange, often surrealistic landscapes.

A little background: From the time she was twelve years old, my daughter had a cyst on the back of her head. Her pediatrician said it was probably harmless, but that if it got larger, she could have it removed. During her senior year in high school, the cyst doubled in size, so during February vacation, Laurie went for surgery. In March of 1988, a routine biopsy determined the cyst to be malignant.

Suddenly, my daughter, her mother, and I were picking up the pieces of our lives and trying to put them back together. The diagnosis forced Laurie to withdraw from an American Field Service program to spend a year abroad, but that summer, when the tumor disappeared after radiation and chemotherapy, she applied to The Portland School of Art, planning to continue her treatments while taking one or two classes. Then, less than a week before school started in September, her leg collapsed while she was walking along a beach. She began physical therapy and made plans to reapply to art school in January. Confined to a walker at home, she found a job painting murals and designing menus for a new restaurant in town. When physical therapy did nothing but cause her more pain, she went into the hospital, at first for more tests, but after she developed a fever, her primary care physician decided to keep her there and begin another round of chemotherapy. That was when I took a leave of absence from teaching and moved into a Ronald McDonald House, less than a mile away from EMMC.

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Summer, 1988, when we were hopeful. It’s hard not to see the irony of her tee-shirt.

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Every morning and evening at the Ronald McDonald House, strangers on a journey none of us wanted to take would sit down together in the dining room to share stories. I’ve forgotten names, but I remember a woman—square and sixtyish—moving in slow motion in and out of the morning shadows cast by the light coming through the window over the sink, as she fried sausages for her husband, getting radiation for prostate cancer. I recall a five-year-old girl who was being treated for a brain tumor, and her stuffed penguin, Opus, sitting on the chair beside her at meals. And a man whose nineteen-year-old daughter’s transplanted kidney, the one he’d given her twelve years earlier, was failing and no one knew what to do next. “I can’t help her this time,” he’d often say to me. “What the hell do I do?”

At no time in my life have I ever felt more like a stranger wandering through an alien land. I had no control over the day’s events, no say in the final outcome. Every day, I would enter Laurie’s room and see that the morphine level on the gizmo intravenously feeding pain medicine was higher than the day before. Contractions in her throat and pain in her esophagus made eating more difficult, until Dr. Brooks made decision to stop the second chemotherapy and to feed her through another IV.  She experienced pain in her leg, ankle, and foot. “I only want it to be over!” she told me. Yet, with each new setback, she’d ask, “What’s next?” What’s next was pneumonia, and test results that revealed her pelvis to be riddled with cancer. Soon she could only sleep for half to three quarters of an hour before contorting with pain. When Doctor Brooks prescribed an epidermal catheter put in so that the morphine could be administered directly to the nerve endings, the doctor who put in the catheter told me Laurie was now receiving as much morphine as anyone had ever received at EMMC.

I recall the morning she opened one eye at me while I sat by her bedside, holding her hand. She was on her back, but her head remained turned to the left, so her left eye was swollen. She reached up and touched my beard. “You need a shave,” she said. Those were the last words she ever said to me. Soon, her breathing became a combination of moaning and gargling. A nurse brought in some kind of suction device to clean out Laurie’s throat. The next night, when I walked into her room, all I could think of was the sound of my mother’s old coffee pot percolating from Laurie’s bed. That morning at 12:15 a.m. my daughter died.

I wish I could say that being with Laurie when she died was some kind of mystical experience, but all I remember was holding her hand and trying to keep her mouth cleared of mucus while tears and snot ran down my face. There was no feeling of the transcendent, no sense of having arrived anywhere. During those weeks, I read books on spirituality and theology. I spent time in the hospital chapel between visits. Yet I have to say that I never felt anything like the presence of God during that time, never felt comforted, experienced nothing except numb emptiness.

Yet, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing these blogs it’s that pilgrimage is an interior journey that continues long after the external one is over. As I found out in the months and years after I came back from the Ronald McDonald House, what I now call the God of my Not Understanding had been there. There had been a purpose to each of those days that I’ve never had since. I knew in the morning where I was going and why I was going there. No matter what else was going on, the great mysteries of life and death were always present. I learned more about courage, grace, and strength in the face of suffering from my daughter than from any coach, athlete, or soldier I’ve ever known. The reading I did, my experience with the silence of the hospital chapel, my giving up of control and entering into the unknown, all became the foundation for my life after Laurie’s death.

There were many times during November and December of 1988 when I wished Laurie’s doctor would just give her a shot that would end her suffering, but today, I treasure those last weeks I had with my daughter, They have become a sacred time, and my chair by Laurie’s bedside a sacred place, turning the experience into a pilgrimage— the most arduous of my life, and one I’m still, at some level, making.

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1987 Self-Portrait

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Return to the Desert

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If I ever commit suicide, it will be in March. I can handle December, January, and February. Snow is supposed to fall; it’s supposed to be cold. But during March—at least here in Maine— winter drags on, gray and cold and windy, except for the occasional sunny day that turns everything to mud.

March is when my soul is at low tide. The world situation is scariest, the national political scene is its most indigestible, and people on the street turn into assholes. Looking after grandchildren, volunteer activities, hobbies—all of which I usually enjoy—become burdens.

As March began this year, besides everything else, I was still depressed over the seventeen students gunned down at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and the partisan politics blocking any kind of meaningful discussion over what to do about the bloodshed that threatens to drown this country. Closer to home, one of my oldest friends was dying of cancer, and watching one of the best athletes I ever played with struggle to get out of bed was a painful and foreboding glimpse of mortality.

Fortunately, this year, Mary Lee and were able to return to the desert, specifically to the Desert House of Prayer just outside Tucson, Arizona. Why there? What draws me, a geriatric who has spent almost his entire life in northern New England? What makes the desert a source of healing?

One reason, I suppose, is nostalgia. I have a picture of me at my birthday party—I’ve probably turned five or six—wearing a cowboy hat, chaps, shirt, and belt.

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Every Saturday afternoon, I watched Buck Jones, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, or Hopalong Cassidy chase bad guys through the sagebrush. I’d practice throwing my younger sister Jaye over my shoulder the way Gene Autry did when Black Bart tried to sneak up on him. After graduating from high school, I spent two summers working for the U.S. Forestry Department in the mountains of Idaho, where I wore a real cowboy hat and Frisco Jeans, fought forest fires, and picked up a little beer money throwing an axe into a tree from twenty-five feet away.

Maybe part of the appeal of the West, then, is recalling when l could tell the good guys from the bad guys by the color of their hats, and when I was as strong as I’ve ever been, and the world was new, and excitement was just over the next mountain. When the stars seemed so close at night that I knew I could grab one any time I wanted.

It was that sense of transcendence that I later found in contemplative prayer practices, which began in the deserts of Egypt in the early days of Christianity. I’ve always enjoyed reading about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who went to the desert to escape the Roman Government’s appropriation of Christianity, who practiced what has become known as the “Apophatic” way to God, where the presence of God may, as often as not, be perceived as an absence. In the stark silence of the desert, these men and women found a setting for what they referred to as “Agnosia,” or “unknowing.” Casting aside all images of God, they made themselves deserts, stripped of everything but the spark of soul that they felt was God.

After my daughter Laurie died of cancer, when the world had become a barren landscape of pain and confusion, frustration and doubt of everything and everybody, especially anything to do with the Christian faith I’d grown up with, this apophatic or “Negative Way” was the one thing that made sense. And I’m still more comfortable talking about who God isn’t than who or what God may or may not be. I suppose it’s no accident that my favorite gospel is Mark, which has been called the “desert gospel,” both for its starkness of language—it’s the shortest of the four gospels—and the location of many of its major scenes.

Beldan Lane, in his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, thinks of the desert as being like a vaccination, in which we are given a small amount of whatever we need healing from. In my case this year, I needed healing from a violent and grotesque world that had begun to seem overwhelming: increasing economic injustice, ugly racism, obscene wealth, and a government of Barnum & Bailey clowns and would-be big game hunters trampling on the Constitution. I needed some kind of antidote for my fear that every stomach ache, every pain in my back, every new mole on my body was cancerous. For a New Englander like me, the desert, with its tall Saguaro growing out of volcanic rock, the cholla and prickly pear cacti that left their spikes in my arms and legs as I walked past, the desert sage, mesquite, and creosote bushes provided the right shot of the grotesque and the painful.

But at the same time, the desert is also a place of surprise and beauty. The silence is thundering. The sunrises and sunsets are often spectacular. This time of year, the cacti are blossoming bright yellow and red. Rabbits poke along under the creosote bushes. The songs of doves, cardinals, wrens, thrushes, and finches fill the air. On a morning hike last week, Mary Lee and I rounded a corner and met a coyote, who stared indifferently at me while I fumbled for my camera, and then, as if growing tired of my inability to get it out of my pocket, loped up a rocky hill toward a cave.

Later, thinking about the coyote, I remembered a quote by Andrew Harvey: “We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us.” I’m still not entirely sure why, but I think he’s right. In part, I guess, because the desert reminds me that I’m not the center of the universe. The coyote, the cacti, the rocks, the birds here exist independent of what I think or feel. The sun will rise and set no matter what condition my soul is in. Those volcanic red and gray rocks at my feet were here long before me and will remain long after I’m gone. I am but a small part of a fundamental creative force moving in all things. Bleak at times, but also breathtakingly beautiful.

So I’ve come home from the desert with a little more of “… the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” The political circus is still the same. The weather isn’t any better. (Two days after I got back, it snowed for three days.) My friend Scott died. Still, the desert has given me hope that even in desolation, even amidst the grotesque, even in death, life blooms. With or without me.

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In memory of Scott Dunham: 1943-2018

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Treasures

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I can’t remember when or where I first heard this story, but I’ve heard it several times since. Here’s my version:

Once upon a time, there was a very poor shoemaker who lived in the city of Prague. Night after night, he dreamed that he should journey to Vienna, where, at the base of a great oak tree, he would find buried treasure. Finally, he left his family and after a long, arduous journey to Vienna, he found the tree.

As he started digging, a soldier demanded to know what the poor man was doing. When the man told the soldier about his dream, the soldier broke into laughter. “You idiot!” he said. “Why if I let myself be guided by dreams, I’d be headed for Prague, because I’ve been dreaming of a treasure chest buried in the cellar of some poor shoemaker there.”

The shoemaker hurried home. He dug in his cellar and yes, he found a chest filled with gold.

Later, as he reflected on his new wealth, he thought, “The treasure was always in my possession, but I had to travel to Vienna to find it.”

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When I first moved to Mount Desert Island, considered by many one of the most beautiful places in the world, I was telling a long-time resident about the beautiful sunrise I’d seen over the ocean and the islands. “Oh, we get those all the time,” she said. “I don’t even notice them anymore.” I couldn’t understand how she could be so blind, and yet I admit now that it’s only after being on a pilgrimage or making a retreat that I become aware of some of the treasures I’ve had have in my possession but have never seen.

I remember falling in love with the clouds hovering over the water surrounding the Scottish island of Iona, and then returning to Maine and realizing that I could see those same puffy white clouds over Casco Bay. Walking through golden bracken along St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose Scotland to the island of Lindisfarne in England and then going back to Brunswick and seeing for the first time the bracken in woods behind my house. Spending thirty minutes or more at breakfast watching house finches and cardinals at the feeders outside the Desert House of Prayer in Arizona, and then realizing after I got back to Maine that I could put up a feeder and watch house finches and cardinals from my own breakfast table.

I don’t know why we have to go away in order to find the treasures that we already possess, but writers on pilgrimage all say that renewed awareness is one of the things a pilgrimage is for. And T.S. Eliot writes: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

So, while I wish I could discover my treasures by sitting with my feet up in front of a fire on a winter evening, I guess I can’t.

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“In prayer we discover what we already have,” wrote Thomas Merton, one of my cherished teachers. A year and a half after my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer, I was introduced to Contemplative Prayer, a form of Christian meditation. The first time I tried it, I felt like a fool for sitting in a dimly lit church that must have been about the same temperature as a barn, trying to avoid what I’d spent over twenty-five years teaching kids to do: think. I heard my father muttering in my ear, “What kind of goddamned foolishness is this?” My old basketball teammates sneered at me for contemplating my navel. This isn’t me, I thought.

But then I thought of Saturdays at the First Congregational Church when I was a kid helping my father, who moonlighted as the church sexton, and the enjoyment of being alone in the empty sanctuary. I thought about all those solitary hours I played basketball in the back yard, and my sense of transcendence as the ball left my hand and rose into the air—as if I were the one soaring and leaving the secular world behind. I recalled when I worked for the U.S. Forest Service: the hours I sat on a rock in the middle of a burned-out forest, silently beholding the Grand Tetons. All the cathedrals I’d visited in England the previous summer—sitting on wooden pews surrounded by elaborately carved stones, never thinking about theology or God, most of the time just sitting, cradled by silence. I thought about the chapel at Eastern Maine Medical Center where I used to go after I’d been by Laurie’s bedside.

Maybe, I thought, I’ve been meditating all my life.

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The silence and slow time of a pilgrimage, retreat, or sitting in contemplative prayer all help me become more aware of what I see, hear, touch, smell, and even taste. Focusing on my senses keeps me in the present moment and not in the past or in the future, where my mind so often wants to take me. Every spiritual tradition I know of says in one way or another that God is found not in past memories or some future “heaven,” but in the treasure that is the present moment.

“Wasting time conscientiously,” as the Buddhist Suzuki Roshi says—using my senses, focusing on the present moment—helps me experience what mystics have been saying for centuries and that modern science seems to be confirming: that all of life is connected in a fundamental way. As philosopher Brian Swimme and historian Mary Evelyn Tucker write,

“… our universe is a single immense energy event that began as a tiny speck that has unfolded over time to become galaxies and stars, palms and pelicans, the music of Bach, and each of us alive today.”

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“The universe,” en.wikipedia.org. For a graphic representation of how the universe is connected, I recommend the video, “The Cosmic Eye”—www.youtube.com/watch?v=jfSNxVqprvM.

 

I have trouble with anthropomorphic descriptions of God—words that depict God as having human characteristics, even desirable characteristics such as love and compassion. Perhaps because I’ve lost a child to a rare, freaky cancer that had nothing to do with her having any bad habits, as did all the smokers who died in my family from the disease, I bristle when someone calls God “all-loving.” But when I can get out of my head and experience through my senses that everything connects, I sense a power that seems to hold even the universe, even death, in a kind of heavenly enfolding.

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Time, silence, my senses, the present moment, my experiences with the unity of the universe (which, by the way, literally means “turned into one”): all treasures I’ve had to go to Vienna to discover I already possess. I’m guessing we all have treasures buried in our cellars. My problem is that I find these treasures and then bury them again (or, as is more likely these days, forget where I put them). Which means I have to keep going back to Vienna, keep going on pilgrimages and making retreats, to find once more what I’ve always had.

 

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Names I’ve Carried

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One of the gifts of writing this blog is hearing from people I used to know in what I call my “other lives.” Recently, after a comment on my blog by an old high school classmate who called me Ricky, followed by one by a former student calling me Sir, I realized one way to identify these other lives is to look at how people from my past name me.

So far, in thinking about the names I’ve carried on this pilgrimage that’s approaching three quarters of a century, I’ve come up with Rickie, Ricky, Richard, Richman, Wile, Wildman, Twinkle-Toes, Sweetie, Lofty, Rick, Dick, Rich, Maine, Froggy, My Son, My Son the Educated Fool, Mr. Wile, Wiley Coyote, Perfessor, Mr. Advanced Placement, Honey, Officer, Sir, Bro, Brother, Da-Da, Dad, Your Father, You Son-of-a-Bitch, You Shit, Darling Rick, You Poor Bastard, Pastor, Ass-hole, Hey You! Gampa, Grampa Rick, Grampa Friday.

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Once a year for at least the last twenty-five years, I’ve celebrated my birthday by watching the classic movie, Casablanca. When my mother saw that movie in 1943, she was, in the words of the King James Bible, “with child,” and thinking Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine, looked like my father, decided to name me Richard and call me Ricky, the name I grew up with.

Almost all of the boys I knew had an “ie,” or a “y” at the end of their name: Willie, Allie, Teddy, Scotty, Dougie, to name just a few. The website “English Language and Usage” states that this practice dates from the Middle English, and denotes familiarity, intimacy, or tenderness—all feelings I was graced to grow up with. But by the time I was eighteen, I thought my name childish, a symbol of being overprotected, hemmed in. I wanted to be the Rick of Casablanca, the mysterious figure lurking in the shadows of Morocco, sucking on his unfiltered Camels, nursing his whiskey and his deep, dark past, and of course, his love for the beautiful Ilsa. The Camels and the whiskey led to what my doctor calls “mild” COPD and a few battles with booze before I surrendered to a twelve-step program. Still, one of the first things I noticed when I met my wife Mary Lee was how much she looks like Ingrid Bergman. Like Bogart’s Rick, I’m, in the words of Inspector Renault, “a sentimentalist,” hiding behind a veneer of sarcasm. I like to think I have Rick’s integrity and concern for the underdog.

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I’ll never forget the first time a student called my Mr. Wile. I didn’t know who the hell he was talking about. But as other students called me Mr. Wile, I began to experience a pride, a sense of importance, authority, I’d never had before. N. Scott Momady writes in his memoir, The Names, that Native Americans receive names so that they might grow into them. This is what I did with my new name, Mr. Wile. I became that authority figure—stern, demanding. In the early 1970s, when teachers and students alike were dressing more and more informally, I wore double-breasted sport coats, bell-bottomed slacks, paisley ties, and matching pocket handkerchiefs. I covered my students’ essays with corrections and comments, and more than once reduced a school valedictorian to tears.

One summer, almost twenty years after becoming Mr. Wile, my first wife, our daughter, and I went to a local Fourth of July parade. I ran into some former students, now in college. They said nice things about how well they were doing in English, how thoroughly I’d prepared them for college expectations. I wished them all the best, lit my pipe, and blew a self-satisfied smoke ring. Above the clamor, a voice cried, “Hey, Mr. Wile!” I looked around for another student. I heard the voice behind me: “Mr. Wile?” Turning, I saw my daughter, Laurie—she was probably twelve at the time—her eyebrows raised, her forehead furrowed. “I’ve been saying Dad for the last five minutes,” she said, “but you never noticed me.”

My God, I remember thinking, is Mr. Wile all I am, even to my own child? Of course, that wasn’t the only reason I quit the Rotary Club, the church Board of Deacons, my job, and my marriage, but it became an easy reason to point to. And when Laurie died of cancer six years later, my guilt and shame over the memory of Mr. Wile and not Dad pounded in my chest like one of the monsters in the Alien movies that were so popular at the time, threatening to explode and tear me apart.

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Most of the names I’ve carried have come from other people, but there was one name I gave myself. About eight years after Laurie died, at a time when I thought that I’d gone through the worst of my grieving and that Mary Lee and I were finally starting to enjoy life again, I experienced a period of darkness such as I hadn’t experienced since the first months after my daughter’s death. I became withdrawn, angry all over again, bitter, especially with other people who talked about having suffered a great loss in their own lives. In talking with Mary Lee, my rector, my spiritual director, and after difficult periods of meditation, I began to see—and I’ve since read this is common with a great grief—that what I was grieving was not the loss of my daughter, but the loss of my grief over the death of my daughter. Without knowing I’d done so, I’d given myself the name Grieving Father. At some level, I knew I had to lose this name if I were to move on with my life, but at the same time, it was really hard to let it go.

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One of my hardest decisions after starting to write for publication was deciding what name to put on my work. Should I use Rick, as I am to everyone who knows me these days? Or should I go with the more formal Richard, a name I didn’t even know I had until I entered school? I saw that most of my mentors wrote under their formal names, and that my formal name was on my checkbook. Besides, I decided, authors calling themselves Rick seemed too new agey, especially for someone of my generation. I went with Richard.

But honestly, I feel like I’m using an alias.

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When both of my stepsons and their wives announced that they were going to be parents, I had mixed feelings. I was delighted for them, but at the same time, while not bitter, I was apprehensive about becoming bitter. I will, I told myself, never have a “real” grandchild of my own. These children will already have two grandfathers. Will I be extraneous? The ghost of Mr. Wile whispered in my ear, You never spent enough time with your daughter. Are you going to avoid your grandchildren, too?

All of which changed the moment I held, first John and then six weeks later, Anastasia in my arms. All my baggage, all the solipsistic crap, melted in the depth of their eyes.

And now, that I’m some form of Grampa to five grandchildren has given me a name I prize.

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In my Bio for this blog two and a half years ago, I equated my various names with what Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, and others call “false selves.” I think I felt then that these names had kept me from realizing my “true self”: myself as the image of God, “manifested,” as Father Keating says, “in our uniqueness.”

But today, I’m wondering if all of these names I’ve carried on my pilgrimage aren’t various facets of my true self—don’t, in fact, reveal my uniqueness. Madeleine L’Engle writes somewhere that to name something is to assign it meaning, value, importance, and significance. That essentially to name something is to love it. If so, my names, even those reminding me of how love can die, show me that my 75-year-old pilgrimage has largely been one through love.

Something worth remembering.

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On Diminishments

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The other day, Mary Lee and I took two of our grandchildren to a nearby playground. There, lying on the tarmac under a basketball hoop, was a basketball. Now, I spent part of almost every day from the time I was fourteen until I was eighteen with a basketball in my hands, and I continued to play competitively until I was in my thirties. Obeying some ancient siren’s song, I picked up the ball and flicked it towards the basket.

The ball went maybe two feet in the air, came back, and hit me on the head.

I recently read a book on aging in which the author used the word “diminishments” to describe what happens as we grow old. (I’d tell you the name of the book and the author, except I forget both, and I can’t find the book anywhere. Which isn’t unusual these days. I spend part of each day looking for something I’ve lost. What is new, though, is that lately, I’ll lose something, try to figure out where I left it, and realize I’m staring right at the goddamn thing.)

Eyesight, hearing, strength, reflexes, libido—all become diminished. I’m guessing most of you reading this know all too well what I’m talking about. You know the sinking feeling of having someone with gray hair offer you his or her seat on public transportation, of struggling to bend enough to get your socks on in the morning, of hating to drive after dark because the lights hurt your eyes. (Or, in my case, taking out a bank loan to buy a new car and then scrapping the side of it because I didn’t judge how close my new car was to a stone wall. But then, I expect you have your own story about aging to tell. When my father-in-law was in his seventies he used to say he was in his “anecdotage.”)

I’ve written here a number of times about how the pilgrimages I’ve made have made me aware of my diminishments: of being passed on the trail by everyone from eight to eighty, of gasping up hills, of falling down mountains. Indeed, most of the writers I’ve read on pilgrimage say that pilgrimage is really about diminishments, of purposely leaving parts of yourself behind in order to become more spiritually attuned to the world around you.

In fact, all of the spiritual traditions I’m familiar with talk about the need to let go of attachments, so I’m trying these days to find benefits in my diminishments—“Let go and let God,” as the twelve-steppers say. And I do think my physical and mental diminishments have allowed me to let go of some things that need letting go of.

I no longer search out mirrors or store windows to check my appearance—sometimes in admiration, sometimes in disgust—no longer obsess about my weight, no longer change hairstyles or grow and then shave off beards. I’ve given up climbing mountains, let go of feeling I should pick up the check when I go out to lunch with someone. I’ve accepted that my shoulders are not going to get any wider, my pot belly any smaller, and I’m not going to gain back the four inches I’ve lost since I played basketball. I no longer feel I need to write the Great American Novel.

I’m losing the need for approval. Like many people, I have always defined myself by what I do, but my well-being has been determined by what I imagine others think of what I do. One of the things I hated about cocktail parties (something I’ve very happily let go of) was when some doctor or lawyer or CEO would ask me, “And what do you do?” Often, despite the fact that my job usually gave me pride and purpose, I’d hunch my shoulders and mumble something about being “just a high school teacher,” as if teaching were the twentieth century equivalent of leprosy.

Writing for publication means receiving rejection notices. It goes with the territory. But for someone who has always needed the approval of others, each rejection felt as if I were being rejected as a person.  That fear of rejection is diminishing, and I feel freer than I ever have before.

But it’s still hard not to define myself by what I do, even if what I do has been diminished. Almost my first thought in the morning is “What am I going to do today?” And almost my last thought at night is “What did I do today? Did I write? Get exercise? Spend time in contemplative prayer? Play the banjo or guitar? Show Mary Lee how much I love her? Help somebody out?”

Don’t get me wrong. All of these are good to do, but I’ve found over the years that defining myself even by worthy activities has led to shame—why didn’t you do them better, you dolt?—judgmentalism—why didn’t you do more?— anxiety—am I going to be able to find time to do everything I want to do today?—all leading to a solipsistic preoccupation with self.

On the other hand, the few times that I’ve been able to focus more on being than doing, I find myself more grateful, more aware of grace in my life. I still don’t understand what I think of as the Great Mystery, but I’ve lived long enough to have experienced it.

I know that. My ego, however, doesn’t. And doesn’t want to. My ego says this “Let go and let God” stuff is weakness. “Stop doing and you’ll die!” it tells me.

Well, guess what? I’m going to die anyway. And maybe the real lesson of my diminishments is to remind me—more and more often these days—of that fact, and that I need to spend what time I have left being open to recognizing grace and being grateful for the joys I’ve experienced, most of which—Mary Lee, her children, my daughter, my grandchildren, my parents and siblings, music, Nature—I’ve received regardless, even in spite of, anything I ever did.

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My diminishments point out the need to surrender to my Higher Power/Great Mystery/God/Whatever while I’m still able. I’m struggling, but this week I’ve started to ask myself in the morning, “What do I get to do today?” Maybe it’s just semantics, but I’ve found the change helpful. Also helpful is remembering I’m making a pilgrimage, not a hundred-yard-dash. As Richard Rohr writes: “The surrender of faith does not happen in one moment, but is an extended journey, a trust walk, a gradual letting go, unlearning, and handing over.”

I’ve got time. I’m not that diminished yet.

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Holiday Hope

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A few weeks ago, I made a pilgrimage to Mount Desert Island, where I once lived and worked, to attend a five-day contemplative retreat. During the first session, our facilitator asked us to share a particular concern we’d brought to the retreat with us. When it was my turn, I found myself saying I worried that during what is traditionally a time of hope, I’d lost hope in the future of this country. At almost 75, I said, I wasn’t that distressed about my prospects, but I worried about those of my grandchildren.

I also said that this time of year has always been a hard for me to be hopeful because my daughter died on December 23, 1988, and for the past twenty-nine years, the increasing darkness outside mirrors the increasing darkness inside of me as I recall the two months I spent living at a Ronald McDonald House, walking back and forth to the hospital to sit by Laurie’s side watching her grow weaker every day.

Since that retreat, I’ve been thinking a lot about hope and about Laurie, and as strange as it might sound, I’m finding the more I look back over the years since her death, the more hopeful I am for my grandchildren and for myself.

One of the questions I asked myself after Laurie died, was “How am I going to survive this?” Well, my pilgrimage through grief hasn’t been easy, for me or my family. I still stumble in anger, still get mired down in resentments. But looking back over the twenty-nine years, I can also honestly say that I have discovered grace and joy and a peace that, as the Christian Apostle Paul wrote, “passes understanding.”

I’m not entirely sure where this serenity has come from, but so far, I can think of four possible sources, four reasons to give me hope, four legacies I want to pass on to my grandchildren for their futures:

The Strength of Family. I grew up in a family scarred by alcoholism, abuse, and abandonment. Some of those wounds were passed on to me and my siblings, and I’m still in recovery, still realizing how this background has influenced my behaviors over the years, from my own addictions to my arrogant and judgmental attitudes. But the work I’ve been doing lately in my twelve-step program has also shown me that I’ve reaped the benefits from having two parents who overcame their own hideous childhoods, who loved me, sacrificed for me, and, above all, gave me some of my character traits I’m most proud of, including the strength to overcome the loss of a child.

I want to pass that strength on to my grandchildren.

The Dynamic Detachment of Nature. I’ve spent some of the most “spiritual” moments of my life struggling up mountains, sweating in deserts, snowshoeing in bitter cold, and peering through ocean fog. What makes these landscapes spiritual for me is that they make me feel small and insignificant. The ocean is going to break over the rocks no matter if I’m filled with joy or filled with grief; the sunrise will paint the clouds pink regardless of what happens in Washington. Yes, Nature is filled with death, disease, and violence, but even in death it teems with life. One of my favorite images from hiking Saint Cuthbert’s Way from Scotland to England is of a blown-down tree, its roots exposed. The tree’s branches have grown into four new trees rising from the decaying trunk. That force, that instinct to grow and blossom and bloom, drives, I think, all life.

I need to remind myself that force runs through my grandchildren, giving them the power to flourish, no matter what obstacles they’ll face.

The Healing Power of the Arts. Before Laurie died, about the only writing I’d done was in my journals. I was an academic. My goal was to do more work for the College Board as a consultant. But after Laurie’s mother and I divorced, Laurie, who had also been focused on academic studies, swapped her L.L. Bean skirts and blazers for long sweaters and jeans, dyed a pink stripe in her hair, painted her fingernails black, and took up art, going to summer art programs, and planning to study art in college. After her death, I began going to summer writing programs, took early retirement from public school teaching, and went back to school for an MFA. Writing helped me identify my feelings, and became a way for me to harness my anger and my shame by writing a book and then revising it through God-knows how many rejection slips. More important, writing, like the banjo I wail on, like Laurie’s watercolor that hangs over my desk, reveals to me an essential order to what often seems, especially after a great loss, a chaotic and meaningless universe.

My grandchildren love to listen to stories, love to tell stories. It’s apparently natural for them to build and color and draw pictures. I want to nurture those instincts.

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The Chuckle in the Dark. In A Grief Observed, popular theologian C.S. Lewis recorded his anguish over the death of his wife. Never intending his words to be published, he railed against God for the suffering and pain his wife had endured, and for the sorrow that was tearing him apart and demolishing everything he’d previously believed about God. Gradually, however, he experienced an “impression which I can’t describe except by saying that it’s like the sound of a chuckle in the darkness. The sense that some shattering and disarming simplicity is the real answer [to the mystery of suffering and death].” The retreat that I participated in a few weeks ago focused on the works of an anonymous 14th century writer who felt that the only way one could experience God was in what he called a “Cloud of Unknowing.” Since the loss of my child, my experience of God/my Higher Power/ the Eternal/Whatever has been through subtraction rather than by addition. I’ve lost all I ever learned about God, especially the idea that God is some compassionate Superman: all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing. And like C.S. Lewis, like the anonymous 14th century author we discussed, as I’ve lost those images of God, I’ve experienced an unfathomable serenity, one that has lasted this year well into the holidays.

I’m still not optimistic about the future of this country. I’ve read too much history about the rise and fall of empires not to feel that our nation is in decline, if not free-fall. But over the last few weeks I’ve discovered a difference between optimism and hope. Hope—for me anyway—is as much about the past as it is about the future. Hope looks back and grieves the reality of death, disease, decline, and destruction but at the same time, hope gives thanks for a life filled with the grace not only to survive but to thrive.

Which gives me hope my grandchildren will do the same.

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