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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Listening to the Breath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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/

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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