Of Smells

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“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”

—Vladimir Nabokov

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One of the joys of being 10 weeks past heart surgery is that I can resume daily walks, especially in the woods not far from where I live. And this is a great time of year for it. The leaves are beginning to turn, the air is drier, and the blackflies are gone. But I’m interested that the first thing I noticed when I entered woods after over two months were the smells: the musky, fecund tang of fallen leaves and pine needles, yellowing bracken, and decayed trees. Not only did the smells welcome me back into the present, they took me back to walks through Scotland and England, California, Massachusetts, Vermont, and even further back to the Ponderosa forests of Idaho during my college years and the piney woods behind my house when I was growing up.

Our sense of smell, I’m told, is linked to the part of our brains that processes emotions and memories. Probably every college English major (even if, like me, they’ve never read it) knows that Marcel Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past begins when the narrator tastes a cookie called a madeleine dipped in tea, which triggers seven volumes of memories.

Fear not, gentle reader, I’m not about to attempt anything of that magnitude, but I do feel compelled to ponder a few memories—some pleasant, some not so pleasant—I tripped over the other day as I sauntered through the woods.

I don’t think any smell evokes happier memories than the smell of baking bread. (I’m told real estate agents tell people who want to sell their houses to fill them with the smells of baked bread prior to showing them to prospective buyers.) Every Saturday morning when I was growing up, my mother would bake bread for the week, filling the house with the aroma of love and security. Having spent the last couple of years working with a sponsor in a twelve-step program, I find it healing to remember that in spite of the emotional scars I carry from being raised in an alcoholic family, I was always loved and cared for.

It’s probably nostalgia, but remembrances of my growing up are filled largely with happy smells: the smell of hay and cows and horses in my great-grandfather’s barn, the smell of fried onions and potatoes in my Nanny and Grampy Lufkin’s house, the smell of perfume and cigarettes in Nanny Cleaves’s apartment, the smell of  Aqua Velva, my first aftershave lotion, the White Shoulders perfume my first girlfriend Susan wore, even the smell of wet towels, dirty socks and jock-straps in the locker-room underneath the gymnasium where I spent so much time playing basketball. (Okay, that memory’s definitely nostalgia.)

Conversely, no smell brings back more pain than the smells of shit and disinfectant in nursing homes and hospitals (where between visiting others and my own stay I’m spending more and more time these days), which invariably take me back to the two months when my daughter lay in the hospital dying of cancer—a time of fear, loneliness, and guilt—literally a shitty time.

Memories of my unhappy college years come enveloped with the acrid smell of the Old Town Paper Company blown by a stiff wind down the Stillwater River in 10° temperatures, as I pulled my collar up and stumbled my way across campus to classes I never figured out how to study for, filled with students I felt no connection with, and who, I was convinced, disdained me. And the last years of my first marriage seem in my mind’s nostrils as rank as the dregs of the pipe tobacco I used to smoke during those years.

These days, I love the smell of Mary Lee beside me in the morning, of my hot chocolate in the afternoon, of popcorn in the evening. Of seaweed and mudflats along the Maine Coast. Of dirt in the spring. Of going into the school building to pick up my grandchildren and the smells of chalk and disinfectant and young bodies taking me back to my years as a public-school teacher. And speaking of grandchildren, is there anything more uplifting than the fresh, slightly sweet smell of a newborn child?

On the other hand, I hate the heavy perfumey smell when I enter the Maine Mall, damp cellars (probably because they remind me of the cellar I lived over for twenty-two years), car exhaust on a hot day, and now, the smell of the antibiotic Mupirocin, with which I had to swab my nose prior to and after this summer’s heart surgery.

Recalling smells revives memories of my various pilgrimages and retreats even more than photographs. The exotic and sometimes stomach-churning smells of the Old City of Jerusalem—schwarma, spices, and pita bread mingled with the dust of centuries of pilgrims.

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The aroma of apple tea in Turkey. The salt-laden breezes on Iona. The tangy musk smell of the cow pastures through which Mary Lee and I hiked St. Cuthbert’s Way. The dry smoky smell of Tanzania. One of my first memories of the Episcopal monastery in Massachusetts with which I’m associated is the smell of incense wafting up from the altar into the stony steeple.

At this time of year, the woods are full of smells, full of ambivalent emotions. Fall in Maine is when the trees let go of their leaves, which brings for me not only nostalgia, but also a kind of grief. I’m well into the autumn of my life, which, along with the recent surgery, has me thinking about my mortality. So many of the smells in the woods I’ve started walking again arise from dead and dying vegetation. And yet, autumn is also the season I always feel most alive, and never more so than this year, as I find my strength (not to mention gratitude) returning. Yes, the leaves and needles and branches under my feet are dying, but at the same time the decay upon which I walk and which I smell teems with the seeds of regeneration—not only the forest’s, but also, I like to think, mine as well.

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Sunday Afternoon Drives

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The Parents. Thanks to my sister, Jaye Sewall, for the photo.

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A few weeks ago, I was sitting on the back patio, using my recent heart surgery as an excuse to doze in the sun, when I started thinking about a forgotten era in my life, in the life of many Americans, I suspect: the Sunday afternoon drive.

For me, this era lasted from the late 1940s, when my parents bought their first automobile (I think it was a used 1946 Ford), to the mid 50s, when the advent of television and Sunday afternoon sports kept my friends and their fathers at home. During that time, I recall that on Sunday afternoons from spring into the fall, anywhere from three to seven families—the Wiles and the Prides and the Loomises, the Rollstons and the Haskells, the Teffts and the Jameses—would pile into their cars and spend the afternoon traveling the back roads of southern Maine to places like Blackstrap Hill and Pleasant Mountain to look at foliage, Two-Lights and Reid’s State Parks to see the surf, and Sebago and Crystal Lakes to swim. Sometimes, we’d just take off and head into what I still think of as Maine’s Bermuda Triangle: a series of labyrinthian back roads that no matter which one we took always somehow ended up at a reed-infested body of water called Runaround Pond.

Every one of these families had a kid close to my own age, and it was great fun swapping parents, so I could ride in a car with Craig or Richie or Peter. Some parents were more lenient than mine, and let us rough house or yell or sometimes sing, which made me feel like I was playing hooky from school; other parents were more strict, making us sit still and whisper, which made me feel like my own parents weren’t so bad after all.

Watching all these parents interact gave me my first glimpse into the confusing world of being an adult. I couldn’t understand why all the men and most of the women puffed on cigarettes, filling the cars with smoke and stinging our eyes. They often spoke in a strange sort of code that I didn’t understand and laughed at things that made no sense.

(Eventually, I learned that many of these comments had to do with sex. I remember what might have been the earliest “dirty” joke I ever heard—although it took me a while to figure it out:

Question: Who was the first carpenter?

Response: Adam?

Answer: No, Eve. She made Adam’s banana stand.)

And I find that some seventy years later, my parents and their friends still seem to me to belong to a mysterious world beyond my understanding, a world now lost to me forever. Browsing through the 3”x 3” black and white photos in my mother’s old albums show them to look older than their children did at the same age: in their 40’s, they look to be in their 50’s and 60’s—probably the result of the cigarettes they smoked and the fatty foods they consumed (my father started the day with eggs and bacon right up until he died at the age of 66), but also probably because compared to today, they look dressed up. Men wore ties, some even on Sunday afternoon drives, and for the most part women wore dresses.

Compared to today, our mothers seldom used profanity and our fathers used a lot less when we were all together. And the “F Word” was rare even in a group of men. On the other hand, all our parents peppered their language with racial and cultural slurs, with epithets for Blacks, French-Canadians, Italians, Indigenous peoples, Gays, even Catholics. I could get my mouth washed with soap for saying “Goddamn,” but no one did anything except chuckle if I called John Nappi a wop.

All of our parents were affiliated with either the Congregational or Baptist Church in town, but except for my parents and the Haskells, the other families usually attended church only on Christmas and Easter. Their real religion was the United States of America. (It was during this time that “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.) One Memorial Day—I was probably 7 or 8—I was walking down the street carrying a full-sized American flag over my shoulder and Earle Pride yelled out the door of his store at me because the tip of the flag was dragging on the ground.

And if their religion was the United States, they worshipped the American Dream. New washing machines and dryers, larger television sets and “Hi-Fi” record players, pine paneled rec rooms, and most of all, new automobiles. It was common to trade in for a new car every couple of years or so, and when one of our parents did, the car became an object of veneration for weeks, with all us kids scrambling to ride in it on Sunday afternoons.

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And thanks to my sister for this photo of  Dad standing by our first brand new car!

Those afternoon drives then became a worship service, celebrating our parents’—all of whom had grown up during the Depression—rise into American’s great Middle Class, with the freedom to follow new roads to a brighter foliage or higher surf or a longer beach. And if they got lost, or suddenly found themselves back at Runaround Pond, well, there was always next week.

It’s easy for me to criticize their provincialism and bigotry (and later in life, I did), but maybe because I tire easily these days, or maybe because I’m aware that I don’t have the goals, the dreams I used to have, I find that I miss the energy, the—excuse the pun—drive of those black and white people in the old photographs.

I also realize I miss the faith I had back then in my parents and their friends. Before the advent of Elvis and the generation gap, I believed in them more than I believed in God. I remember one Sunday drive. It must have been in the late 1940’s when forest fires burned large parts of Maine. One of our parents heard that there was a big fire in Brunswick, so we all piled into the cars to go look. I don’t remember the fire, only that as we turned the cars around to head back home, I was in the back seat of Earl Pride’s powder blue Dodge with Earl’s son Craig. One minute we were horsing around, and the next minute Craig was gone and the back door of the Dodge was swinging in the wind. Earl slammed on the brakes. I looked behind and saw the other cars screeching to stops. Doors opened and parents rushed to Craig, who was still rolling in the gravel beside the road. My stomach rose into my throat leaving a great empty cavern, until I saw Earl lift his screaming son into his arms, bring him back to the car, and lay him beside me in the back seat. “He’ll be okay,” he told his wife, Doris, “just some scraps and a bump on the head.” And Earl was right. Because he was just starting to accelerate when the door opened, the car wasn’t going that fast. But as far as I was concerned, Craig was never in any real danger. Once his father had him in his arms, I knew he’d be fine.

I had lunch with Craig last week. Like me, he’s had heart surgery, but all things considered, we’re both doing pretty well. Still, other friends have gone this year, some of them almost as suddenly as when Craig disappeared from his father’s blue Dodge. It seems as if one minute they’re here, the next minute, they’re not. And I find myself searching for some older, wiser voice, telling me that everything’s going to be all right. They’re going to be fine.

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False Evidence Appearing Real

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“The crowd of people around us suddenly became menacing.”

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I was reminiscing with myself the other day about various pilgrimages I’ve been on and got to thinking about the only one during which I was afraid. It was in 1997, when Mary Lee and I were in Israel. We’d taken a sherut, a minivan-style taxi, from Jerusalem to visit the Church of the Nativity, the supposed site of Jesus’s birth, in Bethlehem. Because Bethlehem was under the administration of the Palestinian National Authority, when we reached the outskirts of the city, the Israeli sherut stopped at a bus stop to let people out for the Palestinian bus into town. On the way, however, we’d been talking with a Palestinian couple—teachers in Europe, I forget where. Their car was in the parking lot, so they gave us a ride up to the Church. Mary Lee and I did our sight-seeing, saw the cave where Jesus was supposed to be born. (Ever since then, I’ve wondered why all mangers at Christmas time look like tropical huts), went to the gift store where we bought an olive wood creche, and then walked out into the square to find the bus.

Only to realize that I had no idea what the bus looked like or where it was. My stomach suddenly knotted. For the first time since we’d been in Israel, I became aware that Mary Lee and I were traveling alone in a strange, war-torn country. The crowd of people around us suddenly became menacing. Then, I heard a voice off to the side: “Hey! You want bus? Over here!”

The voice came from inside a beat-up blue bus hiding behind the corner of a building. The speaker was an unshaven young man of at most twenty years of age. We walked over and tentatively started to board. Before we were even settled, the guy stepped on the gas, his momentum knocking us into our seats. That was when I saw four or five teenage boys in tee-shirts and jeans behind us, their mouths curled with James Dean sneers around their cigarettes.

A cold hand grabbed my heart and squeezed. I envisioned our being kidnapped, forced in front of TV cameras to denounce the United States, and then beheaded or shot. Only when the bus squealed to a stop and an elderly woman got on did I begin to breathe more normally.

It was a good lesson in fear—what I’ve since learned is often an acronym for “False Evidence Appearing Real.” The divided country, the beat-up bus, the scruffy teenagers and their cigarettes (remember when cigarettes were sophisticated?), the speed with which we left the square were all in hindsight false evidence that these were terrorists intent on holding two middle-aged high school English teachers as political prisoners.

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Throughout my life, most of my fears have been mental: fear of abandonment, fear of not being seen (while I’ve struggled with alcohol over the years, my real drug of choice has been the approval of others), fear of ridicule, or just plain anxiety about… well, I don’t usually know what about. To use a twelve-step word, I tend to “awfulize” when anything new happens, creating worse-case scenarios in my head.

What’s helped over the years is recalling my Bethlehem experience, and that, as then, my fears are almost always false evidence appearing real. And the less I know about something, the more my mind will supply the false evidence. Even when I have had something concrete to worry about—my deteriorating first marriage, my daughter’s cancer—being afraid has never helped me change the outcome.

Life has taught me a few ways to deal with my fears and anxieties. One way is to stay in the moment. The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn has a number of breathing exercises that I’ve found helpful over the years, one of which is breathing in and out, saying “Breathing in, I calm my body, breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”

Another way is journaling. I once took a day-long workshop in journaling, and one of our exercises was to draw a picture of one of our fears. I drew a huge finger pointing at me and laughing in ridicule. Next, we were directed to give our fear a name (mine was Freddy). Then, we wrote a conversation with our fear. (“Me: Don’t you shake your finger at me, Asshole. I’m not as afraid of you as I used to be. Freddy: That’s what you think, Buddy Boy …”)

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Freddy Fear

A third way, and probably the most effective when I can do it, is to turn my fear over to the God of My Not Understanding. “Courage,” as my twelve-step program says, “is fear that has said its prayers.”

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That I’ve been thinking about our trip to Bethlehem and my various fears is no surprise: I’m starting another pilgrimage. No, not the cruise Mary Lee and I are planning to make next week, but open-heart surgery.

This journey began about a month ago, when during a routine follow-up with my primary care doctor, I mentioned to him that I was having more and more shortness of breath, and that my daily walks—for years a source of joy and relaxation—now felt like climbing Mount Washington with a fifty-pound backpack. “I think we’d better schedule you for a stress test,” he said.

A few days later, after getting wired up and pounding a treadmill for six or seven minutes, I listened to a diagnosis of an “abnormality” in my heart rate. That led to first one and then two arterial catherizations, which revealed that my left main coronary artery is just over the line between “moderately” and “severely” narrowed. Since I have no shortness of breath doing normal activity, doctors have given me the okay (as well as a bottle of nitroglycerine tablets) for the cruise. Then I will have by-pass surgery when I return.

So I’m practicing my Thich Nhat Hahn, journaling (not to mention writing this blog), and spending a lot of time with my Higher Power, trying to hand over my various fears and anxieties about dying, of not seeing my grandchildren grow, of becoming a burden to Mary Lee, yadda, ad nauseum. I’m also trying to let go of my tendency to blame myself—which I realize has always been my go-to way to avoid anxiety by swapping it for guilt—feeling that my narrowed artery is because I didn’t exercise more, eat better, lose the ten pounds I’ve been thinking I should lose for the last fifteen years.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, which, as I’ve written about now for almost four years, is one of the characteristics of pilgrimage, along with hearing the call and responding, crossing the threshold where the old has fallen away and the new hasn’t yet emerged, being uncomfortable, beginning again, embracing the unknown, and coming home (wherever home may be.)

The trick, I’m finding, as with all pilgrimages, is to prepare for the future without living in it, and ignore all the false evidence appearing real.

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The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began. 
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
                                                              And I must follow, if I can…                                                                                                                                 (from The Lord of the Rings)

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The Stay at Home Pilgrimage

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Recently, a former (a word I prefer these days to “old”) high school classmate sent me a podcast of Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise, in which Tippett talks with Paulo Coelho, author of such popular books as The Alchemist, and The Pilgrimage. In talking about his own “pilgrimage of who am I?” Coelho said that since pilgrimage involves leaving our homes and discovering something new—meeting new people, paying attention to the elements, being open to life—we are on a pilgrimage from the moment we are born to the moment we die.

Of course, I loved hearing this since for over three years the idea of this blog has been to talk about the similarities between the pilgrimages and retreats I’ve been on and the everyday trips I’ve made to basketball gymnasiums, a Ronald McDonald House, 12-step meetings, weekly old-time music jam sessions, high school reunions, and family burial grounds. But Coelho has me wondering if I’m paying enough attention to the pilgrimages I make even when I don’t leave the house.

I have one of these thingies on my smartphone that tells me how many steps I make in a day, and I’m proud as hell when I get over 20,000 steps. But lately, I’ve been focusing on just 12 steps. My daily readings, my phone conversations with my sponsor, are journeys of discovery. Not all of these explorations are pleasant. Just as on a hike I can twist an ankle tripping over an unseen rock, or scrap a knee, or, in the case of a recent hike in Arizona, come back punctured with cactus stickers, I can stumble over a repressed childhood memory, scrape my defenses, puncture my ego. Yet all of these wounds have helped me learn to let go of the perfectionism that has tarred and feathered me with shame and resentment for over seventy years.

As Coelho and other writers on pilgrimage have said, it’s the letting go that makes any journey—interior or exterior—a pilgrimage. And it’s those survival tools I learned growing up at home, such as perfectionism, judgmentalism, codependence, solipsism, and the like, that I’m learning to leave behind.

On my various travels, I’ve met new people, some of whom I’ve written about in these blogs. At home, through my 12-step programs and the writing of this blog, I have also met new folks. And I’ve come to see people I’ve known before in new ways. Yes, I knew Brynna, who sent me the Krista Tippett’s podcast, in high school, but not well. Only in the last few years have I come to see what a delightful person she is. While in Arizona, I took an afternoon away from my retreat to have coffee with Richard, with whom I’d grown up, but had had almost no contact with from grade school to about a year ago. Both he and his wife Alexandra are two of the friendliest and most intriguing people I’ve come to know.

Reading new writers has always been part of any of my pilgrimages or retreats, whether in Arizona, Scotland, or here in Brunswick, Maine. Lately I’ve been reading Martin Laird, whose three books on silence have become the foundation for what I euphemistically call my spiritual life; Beldan Lane, who writes of nature in a way that resonates with and through me; the mystery writer  Jo Nesbo; and David Mitchell, author of Atlas Shrugged, The Bone Clocks, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’m also reading new works by authors I think of as old friends—Patricia Hampl, Pam Houston—and rereading works like The Aeneid and the novels of Wallace Stegner with new eyes.

The grandchildren are now almost seven, four, and three, and are new people every visit. And so, if I pay attention, is my wife.

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Mary Lee, my companion on all my travels, is on her own personal pilgrimage, and at dinner we sit and talk about our new discoveries that day. My 12-step work on codependency has shown me that If she and I are to keep growing, we need to give each other the space to do so. Especially since our retirements (at least from paying jobs), it’s important for me to see my wife through new eyes, both mine and hers.

It was after my eighteen-year-old daughter’s death from cancer that I began to find solace in traveling. Then, as I began to see parallels between my journeys to other lands and my journey through the landscape of grief and grace, these trips became pilgrimages. Laurie has been dead now for over thirty years, and each year, she becomes less of a memory and more of a daily presence in my life, no matter where I am. There’s part of me that feels guilty for saying this, but I struggle to recall what my daughter looked like. Seeing her picture on the table in the hall with all the rest of my family usually shocks me a bit. The other day, when I was talking with a student from forty-five years ago, now a dentist working on a novel in which an eighteen-year-old girl is dying, I realized as I was telling Chris about how the girl’s father might feel, that I can talk of Laurie’s suffering and death with detachment. Usually, in November and December, the anniversary of the final two months of my daughter’s life, I’m both physically and emotionally fragile. Last year, however, these months were, for the most part, joyous occasions for friends and family visits. Laurie’s suffering and death, her compassion and joy, our walks together, our disagreements, our shared laughter and tears, have all become one breath, inhaling and exhaling, keeping me alive, while making me less fearful of my own dying. Laurie is not in some far-off land, waiting for me to join her at some future time, but here, now, as I’m coming to believe are all our loved ones.

So, does looking at my life as a series of daily pilgrimages make any difference in the larger scope of things? Well, it’s probably not going to solve the immigration crisis or eliminate global warming, but it is helpful for my serenity to look back and see my life as full of mystery and paradox: wounds that heal; forty, sixty, seventy-year relationships that have become new; togetherness built on separation; physical absence and spiritual presence. And it’s this looking back that makes me less afraid of the future, both of my own and of the world’s.

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Mud Season

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“Poor March. It is the homeliest month of the year. Most of it is mud, every imaginable form of mud, and what isn’t mud in March is ugly late-season snow falling onto ground in filthy mud heaps that look like dirty laundry.” —Vivian Swift, When Wanderers Cease to Roam: a Traveler’s Journal of Staying.

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Mud is the most poetic thing in the world. —R. H. Blyth.

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I’ve just returned from what is becoming an annual retreat at the Desert House of Prayer, outside of Tucson, Arizona. But if you want to read about the desert, you should read a couple of my earlier blogs— https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/03/07/dont-ask-why-just-ask-for-help/ and https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2018/03/19/return-to-the-desert/.  I’m going to write about mud.

Which was the first thing I thought of when I woke up the morning after returning from my retreat and looked at a brown, wet, New England landscape choked with trees that looked like sticks, the houses dirty and sad, muddy cars sloshing through puddles, splashing up brown water. Later, I walked to our development’s compost pile through a morass of muck that coated my shoes and tracked into the house, the gunky footprints welcoming me to what we call mud season. Which here in Maine can last longer than springtime.

Let’s face it, mud can be depressing on any number of levels. Our language is full of negative responses to mud: we are “bogged down” in work, “swamped” by debts, “mired” in triviality. We don’t want to “muddy the waters,” and we accuse politicians of “slinging mud.” The Psalmist writes, “… the Lord drew me…out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock.”

Speaking of bogs, one of our current President’s campaign pledges was to “drain the swamp in Washington.” Whether or not he’s succeeding or sinking us deeper into “the miry bog” in debatable, but generally speaking, our civilization has tried to move out of swamps, draining them of mud, replacing them with concrete. (Not always successfully. I once owned a house built on old swamp land, and for the twelve years I lived there, the swamp kept inviting itself back, flooding the cellar, leaving a rug of mud on the cement floor.)

Mud is a place of ambiguity. It’s indefinite, uncertain, and we are a culture that values a distinct, separate self, even if it means putting up walls to keep things and people from seeping through. My Puritan ancestors hated swamps, I suspect, because, in a spiritual sense, there’s nothing to hold on to. Everything is fluid, murky. Like the swamp my house was built on, nature is always about to leak through the tight barriers of morality and hard work.

And yet, while on retreat, I spent time going back into my early childhood, doing some twelve-step work, and realizing that my earliest memory is of playing in the mud. Most children, in fact, are drawn to mud; making mud pies apparently gratifies our first creative instincts. And it’s actually good for us. According to a neuroscience journal, dirt and mud are natural anti-depressants, because the bacteria found in them trigger the release of serotonin in our brains.

Mud rejuvenates. When Mary Lee and I were in Israel, we went to the Dead Sea and covered ourselves in mud—something about the slight buoyancy of mud together with traces of pumice scouring off our dead skin cells. I just thought we looked cool.

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And also sort of sexy. Which makes sense because life on this planet may have been conceived in the mud. Adam, we read in one version of creation, was made from mud. In many Native American creation stories, our continent began with mud. Several recent scientific theories—and one not so recent by Charles Darwin— suggest that the early building blocks of life may have been created in a mud puddle of volcanic ash and warm water some 3.8 billion years ago.

Every year mud season brings new life: daffodils poke from the ground and buds swell on the trees. So, we need the mud for what grows from it. At the same time, when you realize that mud is made up of decayed vegetation and rocks that have been pounded for millions and millions of years into silt, every mud season is also a kind of death. More of that messy ambiguity again.

My trouble is not so much where mud season is taking me, but what I have to go through to get there. I’ve certainly gone through my own personal mud seasons: depression, divorce, the death of a child, illness, addictions, crises of faith. I expect you have, too. Times when nothing is clear, when you have no firm foundation, when you seem to sink deeper and deeper into the mire. And yet, out of these times, you find new life, find yourself growing in ways you never expected.

When I returned to school to get an MFA, one of my mentors was Barbara Hurd, who wrote a wonderful book called Stirring the Mud. In mud, she writes, “the boundary between physical and spiritual melts and we see that one is always infused with the other.” She points out that all of us are more than ninety percent water—“liquid mosaics of mutable and transient urges, and we give ourselves headaches when we pretend otherwise, when we stiffen ourselves into permanent and separate identities.”

Maybe I’m supposed to get dirty. Maybe I’m not supposed to be clear about the fluidity of self. Last week on retreat, during our daily meditation sessions, I saw how elusive, insubstantial, and fleeting my thoughts are. Looking back over my life, I can count at least ten different “identities” I’ve assumed over my almost seventy-six years. I used to call these identities “false selves.” Now, I’m not so sure but that these selves simply leaked back and forth through my life, and what made them “false” was that I clung to them instead of letting them flow.

I have not only returned from Arizona to mud season, I have also returned to the Christian season of Lent, which, as I think about it, is its own kind of mud season, a time of ambiguity, of waiting for new life, while watching where I put my feet. As Philip Simmons puts it in his book, Learning to Fall, “The path to resurrection lies through the mud.”

I’m hoping that during this Lent and this mud season, I will be granted the grace to let the mud teach me to be ambiguous, paradoxical, non-dualistic, non-hierarchical, and receptive—that I may learn to play in the primordial soup of possibility.

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Being in Tanzania

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I traveled to Tanzania with no expectations. My reason for going was to accompany my wife, for whom Africa had been a dream since she was in grade school. Yet, when I returned two weeks later, I felt I’d been on one of the most spiritually significant pilgrimages of my life. Whether or not I’ll say this five years from now remains to be seen, but right now, I’m reflecting on my exterior and interior journeys.

What keeps coming back to me is a comment our guide, Abel, made the morning he drove Mary Lee and me to the Serengeti Plains. We’d begun to see tall, red-robed people herding hump-backed cattle on the hills. He told us these were Africa’s iconic Masai, the semi-nomadic tribe who live in Kenya and Tanzania, continuing their age-old customs, persisting in speaking their own language, in spite of both governments’ instituted programs to encourage them to assimilate into the general culture.

“I like the Masai,” Abel said. “They are proud just to be.”

Since then, I’ve become aware of how hard it is for me to feel that way. Oh, I can remember when I was proud to be a varsity basketball player; when I was (and am) proud to be a teacher; proud to be a parent and grandparent; proud to be an American. But proud just to be? The idea has always been as foreign to me as a Masai diet of blood and curdled milk. I was raised always to consider, “What will the neighbors think?” To get my worth from how others perceive me.

The problem is that I make assumptions about how others see me, which has led to a lifetime of anxiety and resentments. With no idea who I was after I stopped playing basketball, I went into a depression that lasted almost four years. Even after thirty years of teaching, I considered myself an abysmal failure as a human being if I had a bad class. When my daughter died from cancer, convinced people saw me as a poor parent who couldn’t look after his child, my pride in being a father turned to shame. In Africa, I found myself embarrassed to admit to being from the United States for fear of being seen as a supporter of the policies of our current government.

And as the morning continued, and I got used to seeing the Masai and the motorcycles and the open fires and the outdoor furniture stores beside the road on our long drive to the Serengeti, my mind reverted to playing the same old home movies it always does when it wanders. I’m back in high school, changing the outcome of the state basketball championship game, winning by 20 points this time instead of losing by that much. I’m arguing today’s politics with some of those same teammates whose views now differ 180 degrees from mine, destroying their feeble arguments with my brilliant sarcasm. I’m dying of lung cancer, stomach cancer, melanoma, cancer of the esophagus, or Parkinson’s Disease. I’m making plans to change my life when I get back from this trip, eating more fruits and vegetables, giving up cheese and chocolate, losing ten pounds, growing another beard, maybe getting another tattoo. All of which, I see now, are just more examples of getting my identity from what I imagine other people think of me.

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But after lunch, we entered the Serengeti— miles and miles of lion-brown plains dotted with feathery trees under a vast sky. Abel raised the roof of his Land Cruiser. Mary Lee and I stood and began to see animals: gazelles and antelope at first, then the occasional ostrich and wart hog. In the distance, a road seemed to move until we came closer and saw that it was a large herd of cape buffalo chugging across the landscape. On a large boulder, a lion gazed into the distance.

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Slowly, my mind started to shift its focus, still returning, however, between animals, to those old illusions and assumptions.

Until, in the late afternoon, we saw a circle of land cruisers around an Acacia Tree. Pulling in, I could make out a female lion sleeping on a limb. At first, peering through the same sarcastic lens through which I often see things, I found the scene ridiculous—a half-dozen vehicles, at least that many telephoto lenses and maybe twenty people, all watching one lion trying to sleep? Then Abel gave me his binoculars and I watched the lion stretching and contracting her front legs. She swished her tail, arched her back, and moved higher into the tree. Onyx-colored eyes glanced at me dispassionately. She yawned, revealing a large tongue and sharp teeth. Behind her, the air seemed to glow golden and great clouds towered.

When I handed the binoculars back to Abel, most of the other land cruisers had left. I realized I had no idea how long I’d been looking at the lion. Suddenly (a word that’s easy for me to overuse, but in this case it really was sudden) I felt a feeling of peace, of “evenness,” of lightness, followed by a sense of gratitude—Wow! I just got to see that. Thank you!

The feeling didn’t last of course, but over the next week it did return and last longer: lying in our tent at night, listening to the hyenas’ r-r-r-upe, r-r-r-rip, and the heavy breathing of what we found out later were two old male buffalo who liked to wander the grounds; the sight of over a hundred hippopotamuses wedged together like sausages in a river; herds of twenty to fifty elephants parading down to another river to drink and splash and roll in the mud; a cheetah and her two cubs prowling through the grass; seven giraffe standing silhouetted on a ridge; the strange baobab trees, a prehistoric species that predates both mankind and the splitting of the continents over 200 million years ago, whose branches look like roots, and whose gnarled bark has been worn by wind and rain and millennia of elephants using them for scratching posts.

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Now I wonder if what happened was that I was, simply, being. If I set aside the old baggage I usually carry around, so that I became more open with no preconceived ideas of what I thought I needed to prove to someone else. It’s not so much that I lost the sense of who I was, it’s that I became more of who I was: in union with a much larger whole, not just a bunch of weird looking animals, but an energy, a spirit, if you will, running through animals, trees, grass, sky, clouds, Abel, Mary Lee, and me.  I may not have been “proud just to be,” but I certainly was grateful.

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Even if you don’t journey to honor a saint or to see a holy place, I think any trip can become a pilgrimage when the exterior journey triggers an interior one. Brother David Vryhof of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist recently wrote: “A pilgrimage typically involves three experiences: leaving something, gaining something, and struggling with something.” I’m hoping I left some of my defensive, passive-aggressive sarcasm behind. I know the peace and lightness I experienced continues; I notice more. I’m thinking less about who or what I am and more about that I am.

The struggle is to try to maintain this sense of just being now that I’m back dealing with jet lag that lasted a week, the cough that I brought back that won’t go away (I know it’s probably not lung cancer, but…) the season’s first snow storms, obligations, and the memories that metastasize this time of year of my daughter’s last months in the hospital and her death two days before Christmas. I’m trying to think of being in Tanzania not as some abnormal “blip” outside of the reality of my usual assumptions and illusions, but as a step toward experiencing the greater reality I’ve occasionally glimpsed, and with it, gratitude for the life I have, and the serenity of not caring what the hell the neighbors think.

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The River

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“Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river…”— Jorge Luis Borges

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Pulled by currents you don’t understand, you swing off the interstate at the exit to the small New England town in which you grew up, park the car on Main Street, and walk down the hill to where the river meets the harbor. On this crisp autumn afternoon, you stop on the bridge, both of you granulated with age, and gaze upstream, feeling the memories wash over you.

As the river rounds the bend from just below where you used to live, the waters are placid and brown. You remember swimming in those brown waters, despite the threat of your mother’s hairbrush, dogpaddling through chicken parts, dead fish, and raw sewage that drifted down from the upper falls, which from a distance was this white rush of water gamboling over great gray rocks, and you wonder if that’s why you go to church despite friends’ disdain and theological questions that bob like chicken guts—if you aren’t paddling along, trying to stay afloat, praying to catch a glimpse of Grace flowing from the chalice.

At the bend, a granite rock juts out from a bank. It reminds you of the rock further upstream on which you used to sit, watching water flow by, imagining the river taking you to far-off countries filled with adventure and romance. You still like to travel, still find traveling rejuvenates you, educates you, makes you a little less rigid.

Just before the foundation of an old sawmill, the river picks up speed, and rushes toward you, sunlit white water over mossy rocks. It’s 1959, and you’re standing on this bridge, watching the water, inhaling the smell of burning leaves—smoky fragrance of passion. She stands beside you. Sun splashes her pixie-cut. Cats-eye glasses sparkle. A smile of dimples and braces. You take her hand. Hear her laughter flow with the gushing river.

Now you stand alone on the bridge and look down to where the river slows and runs over old foundations crumbling under murky waters. You think of the good-bye letter she sent you in college … sight of her in waitress-whites grinding a cigarette into the pavement as she stepped from a car … gossip of affairs with teachers, abortion … recent rumors of dementia … Facebook picture of white-gold hair, moles, wrinkles, and the flabby ears you all have these days. You think of your own crumbling walls: divorce, a daughter’s death, defeats, surgeries, addictions, rejections …

Checking for traffic (something you never had to do in 1959), you cross the bridge to watch the water run under the interstate overpass, then empty into the harbor still filled with sailboats, cabin cruisers, and lobster boats. For the last ten years of his life, your father had a boat there, and you recall the Labor Day weekend he offered to take you fishing. That was the weekend the resentments that had smoldered for years at the roots of your first marriage ignited and you packed your clothes into the older of your two cars and drove to spend the holiday with your parents before looking for a place to live.

Despite bitching about what he thought was a stomachache (the cancer wouldn’t be diagnosed for a couple of months), you both walked along the docks to a slip at the far end, where his sixteen-foot outboard sat like an afterthought amid all the other pleasure crafts. Even a hundred pounds overweight, your father still moved with the easy grace of the athlete he was as he unbuttoned the canvas top of the boat and untied the mooring ropes. As you puttered down the river, you sat in the stern and watched him at the wheel, seeing him perhaps for the first time, not as a hero or an effigy to be burned, but as a man who always did the best he could with the tools he had.

Rounding another bend, you headed out into Casco Bay. Your father asked you to get him a Blue Ribbon and to take one for yourself. You trolled a little for mackerel. You don’t remember if you caught any fish. You don’t recall what you talked about, only that it felt good to be with your dad as he piloted you past the rocks and through the shoals and the seaweed and the occasional dead fish floating belly-up.

Filled with regret for not spending more time with your father and gratitude for having had that day, you stand on the bridge and look through the overpass at the river. Watch it leave the harbor and disappear around a bend under a steep bank of maple and birch trees. At the top of that bank is the cemetery where stones honoring your father, mother, and daughter lie under gnarled maple trees. You feel the river pulling you, imagine yourself being taken downstream to the cemetery and beyond, into a vast, unknown ocean that awaits us all.

But not yet. The same mysterious currents that brought you here today now pull you in another direction. You lift your eyes to the interstate calling you to family and friends and places you have yet to see and people you have yet to meet. The river will bring you here again, but for now it’s time to turn and walk back up the hill to the car.

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