Roots

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

— Anthony Liccione.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dancing Lessons

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Christmas Prom 1960

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 By constantly greater beings.”

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

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

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

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A Musical Pilgrimage

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It’s Saturday, January 28, 1956, and I’m twelve years old sitting comfortably with my family watching “The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show” on TV. Tonight, however, instead of the usual big band number, a young singer with the strange name of Elvis Presley comes on stage in a black shirt and white tie. He’s got shiny hair, sideburns, and a wise-ass smirk on his face. Beating on a white guitar, he half-moans, half-yells, “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” and wiggles his hips.

“Good God! What the hell is that?” says my father.

I love it.

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A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a blog by Paul Cannon, an Anglican priest in Australia, called “Songs Lift my Soul,” (http://pvcann.com/2018/04/15/songs-lift-my-soul/). That same week, two of my Facebook friends posted the names of their ten favorite musical albums. I started thinking about the importance of music to my earthly pilgrimage and wondering just what it is that makes music so important to so many of us.

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In high school, I worshipped Elvis and his disciples: Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Fats Domino, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Ricky Nelson, Brenda Lee, Wanda Jackson, The Everly Brothers, and Ray Charles. In college I listened to the jazz of Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and George Shearing, as well as the folk songs of Bob  Dylan, Joan Baez, and Odetta. Rock ‘n roll, jazz, and folk music tapped into my longing for romance and freedom—my need to rebel against the small- town Maine culture I’d grown up in—while at the same time remaining safely wrapped in a security blanket of likeminded peers. In other words, I could be independent and dependent at the same time.

But almost overnight, it seems now, my love of music went from being about the promise of the future to nostalgia for the past. Perhaps because I’m just a little too old to be a Baby Boomer or because growing up in an alcoholic family made me diffident and fearful, I, for all intents and purposes, opted out of the rebellious 60s, choosing the security of marriage and a steady teaching job. For me the Beatles were about how much they reminded me of the rhythm and blues of early Elvis. I never cared for their psychedelic stuff, but I did like the rawness of the last albums, which, along with what became known in the 70s as Outlaw Music—Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Jerry Reed—had that sense of romance and rebellion I remembered from my teenage years.

When I think of the music from the 80s and 90s, I think of my daughter Laurie. I listened to her tapes of Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, and Joan Armatrading not only with my ears, but hers—heard the promise, the passion for change. Laurie was also a self-proclaimed “flower child,” and after I’d divorced and remarried, her interest in the Grateful Dead, Pete Seeger, and the electric Bob Dylan made me feel as if I had finally entered the 60s.

When Laurie died in 1988, everything changed, including my musical tastes. I became obsessed with the requiems of Mozart, Brahms, Verdi, and Britten. I saw how grief can be given a structure, and I later used some of that structure for my novel, Requiem in Stones. My interest in spirituality led me to Elvis’s gospel music and the songs of Leonard Cohen, who along with Bob Dylan and Paul Simon continue to guide me as I age.

I also became more interested in playing music. In my early high school years, even as I’d followed Elvis, I’d also played trombone in a Dixieland band “The Ivy Leaguers.” Later in high school, I’d swapped my trombone for a guitar because of the Kingston Trio, who introduced me to folk songs. I became a member of the “The Fish Factory Trio”:

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During my first teaching job in Woodstock, Vermont, I played guitar and sang Ian and Sylvia songs with “The Faculty Three.” After Laurie’s death I took up the banjo (see https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/07/25/joy-and-the-banjo/), the instrument of black slaves and impoverished whites, a sound of sorrow and longing, yet at the same time, joy and gutsiness.

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One reason I don’t think I could exist without music is that both listening to and playing music let me escape for a time what Hamlet called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Or, put another way, music takes me out of what some of the writers I read call my “small,” or “false” self, leaving behind those anxieties to which I’m usually addicted. At the same time, I actually become more myself. Playing in an old-time string band, I am one of a group of musicians, all playing the same song, and yet, my part is individual; in fact, without the others playing their parts, my part makes no sense. I learn that I am the most authentic me only in relationship to others—what Courage to Change: One Day at a Time in AlAnon, calls “unity in diversity.”

And it’s this synthesis that helps me better understand that while spirituality is discovered in solitude, it is fulfilled in community. “Union differentiates,” wrote priest, philosopher, and paleologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. We find our true “personhood,” he said, only by uniting with others.

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But I wonder if music’s almost universal appeal doesn’t go even deeper. As I was writing this blog, I decided to take a break and go for a walk in the woods behind my house. Perhaps because of what I’d been writing, I found myself aware of the music around me—the birds’ various songs; the wind through the trees. I thought of the music from some of my pilgrimages through the years: the Sanctus of sheep bleating at sunset on the island of Iona in Scotland, the dies irae of coyotes’ wailing in Arizona, and the Kyrie eleison of rain and wind through the branches of trees outside my hermitage at Emery House in Massachusetts.

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Feeling my feet tramping through the leaves, I thought of how I have always been drawn to the rhythms of music (which is why I like the later Paul Simon more than the earlier Paul Simon), and how music connects us—well, me at least—to the earth through its tempos: the ebb and flow of tides, the pulsating whistle of the cardinal, the percussion of rain on the roof. In contemplative prayer, I feel the rhythm of my breathing, which sometimes becomes part of a much larger breathing, almost as if someone or something is breathing in me.

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 These days I’m often found, as my wife says, “down the rabbit hole” of You Tube. I look at old videos of my early rock ‘n roll idols—Oh, hey, here’s Fats Domino singing with Ricky Nelson!—reliving my life’s ups and downs. I watch clips from old-time music festivals and artists like John Hartford and Dom Flemons, slowing the videos down as I try to learn “new” old-time tunes. And then, I might watch a lecture by Richard Rohr, Thomas Keating, or Cynthia Bourgeault on spirituality.

They aren’t as different from one other as you might think.

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