This is Not Just Any Sandwich

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I look at the faded and folded white lined paper, at Laurie’s tiny, circular handwriting: “This sandwich would win the approval of Henri Matisse, and fans of rainbows as well.” Suddenly I hear her in the kitchen, opening the refrigerator, taking out containers, opening the vegetable tray. Rustle of cellophane, clink of glass, thud of food hitting the counter.

“Dad, where’s the vinegar?”

I realize she’s never been in this house. “In the bottom cupboard, behind the second door over from the fridge. Do you want some help?”

“Nope, I’m fine.”

I know she’s wearing an over-sized tee shirt she’s tie-dyed, one like she did for me. I hear her singing to herself, probably something by Suzanne Vega, or Tracy Chapman: “Don’t you know they’re talkin’ about a revolution. It sounds like a whisper.”

“Peace-Nik!” I yell.

“Flower power lives!” she yells back. “Where’s the red onion?”

“Under the cupboard on the counter by the window. In that basket.”

I hear chopping sounds, then the rasp of vegetables against a grater. I jump at the whirring and rattling of our blender, then jump again when Laurie cries, “Yikes!” and the blender stops

I stand. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” She laughs. “The top came off the blender. I’ve just got this dressing all over the counter and all over me. I’ll clean it up.”

I smile and sit back down at my desk. “No problem. But this seems like a lot of work for a sandwich.”

“Da-a-ad! This just isn’t any sandwich. It’s a work of art.”

And for a minute, I see her in the doorway, dressed as I imagined, blue-cheese sauce splattered on her arms and a dab of it on her nose. She looks at me, one eye-brow raised, her forehead furrowed in what I think of as a combination of amusement, satisfaction, and frustration. My daughter, the artist. Whether she’s painting a landscape, playing the piano, embroidering, wood-burning, or cooking, she throws herself into it.

And then I see the bright red bandanna around her head, which she wore during the chemotherapy treatments, and my vision of my daughter fades. I’m staring at her last self-portrait, at her sad eyes gazing wistfully out through a window at the world. In the kitchen, my wife is pouring herself a cup of coffee.

Laurie

Today is Laurie’s forth-eighth birthday, and my only child has been dead almost thirty years. It’s a bittersweet day, a sandwich of emotions: a layer of sorrow, a layer of rage. Chop up some shame, some guilt, and some regret. Mix in some “if onlys,” and a few “what ifs.” Season that mixture for a while, let the sharpness mellow. Top it with a generous mixture of happy memories, on-going love, and the knowledge that you helped create someone beautiful and loving and courageous beyond measure, someone who touched all who knew her, inspired many, made a difference for the better in this world—all by the age of eighteen.

I’m still not sure how to celebrate her birthday, figure out how to hold both the knowledge that she is gone with the awareness that she’s always with me. Today, I will buy some flowers and take them to her memorial stone in our family cemetery. Laurie’s step-mother and I will walk along the ocean, not on some sandy beach crowded with oiled brown bodies and the smell of grease, but a rocky shore, where waves hiss and crash on weathered stones and the seaweed smells of damp musk, and I can feel the wind in my face, drying my tears as I pray: “Watch over thy Child, O Lord, as her days increase; bless and guide her wherever she may be ….”

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When we come home, I will follow the recipe for blue cheese sandwiches that Laurie copied for us from the MOOSEWOOD COOKBOOK a year or so before she died. Ordinarily, I hate to cook, but for this one time all year I will prepare a meal instead of simply opening a can of soup or a package of risotto. I’ll shred and chop and sauté and be the one covered in blue cheese sauce. I’ll skin my knuckles on the grater.

But hey, as Laurie says, this is not just any sandwich.

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(Note: I wrote this essay on my daughter’s birthday, August 9, in 2003. It has since appeared in the magazine Alimentum: The Literature of Food, but I think it’s appropriate to republish it this week. I have changed the age Laurie would be in 2018; otherwise, my conflicted responses to her birthday are just as true now as they were fifteen years ago.)

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The Carnival Wheel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Food for the Journey

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Local market Selçuk, Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How many photographs do you have of holiday meals?

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

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The ROMEOS (R.I.P. Scott)

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

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

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

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

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Finish Lines

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One of the many things in life I don’t understand is why so many people enjoy watching gymnastics and figure skating.

Granted, the athletes are graceful and powerful. Their bodies perform in ways I can’t imagine mine ever doing. What I can’t fathom is the scoring. To give one participant a “9.2” and another a “9.1” makes no sense to me. I want the team that scores the most points to win, the person who crosses the finish line first to be the victor.

I need finish lines in my life. I don’t have to finish ahead of you; I don’t even necessarily need to finish (although not finishing what I start does piss the hell out of me), but I do need a destination, a goal toward which to go.

One reason I like thinking of myself as a pilgrim is that all pilgrimages have destinations: a holy site, a family homestead, a place that calls you for some reason. I admit the journey is usually more important than the destination, but without the destination, there is no journey. At least not for me. “Not all who wander are lost,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien, but some like me who wander usually are. Even when I go for a walk in the woods behind my house, I have a destination in mind—Okay, today I’ll do the Blueberry Loop across Pleasant Hill Road—and while it’s okay to change my mind—Nah, I think I’ll do the Ravine Trail instead—I’m just swapping one destination for another. Anytime I’ve just wandered I’ve either gotten lost or come home with ticks.

When I taught, my destination was the class room, and every lesson plan had a finish line. Now in retirement, I still need a daily destination. Four days a week, I plan to be at my writing desk in the morning. Wednesday it’s Men’s Group and Al-Anon. Sunday, I go to Church. Another day I head out for the farmers’ market or the hardware store or the woods or the site of this week’s jam. One of the beauties of retirement is that I can change that destination—even go nowhere—any time I want, and I often do. But the point is that I have a target to help give direction to my days.

I can hear some of you groaning, “My God, what a regimented existence. I could never live that way.” Well, the two times in my life I haven’t had any goals—in college before finding the world of writing and literature, and after my daughter Laurie died—I’ve been confused and depressed to the point of being nonfunctional.

It was after Laurie’s death that I learned about the word “disoriented,” as it pertains to the loss of a child. The word “orient” comes from the French s’orienter which literally means to face the east (or orient), and which came to mean “to take one’s bearings.” Western churches were built with their altars facing east towards Jerusalem, signifying that Christians orient themselves—their beliefs, their conduct—around the Bible and the teachings of Jesus. Today, we use the word to refer to whatever customs, moral standard, or value system we use to guide us in our day to day activities. We are oriented by a world view, a particular lens through which we see things. When a child dies, that lens is shattered. Everything we believe, all our assumptions, lie in rubble. We have no point of orientation. We can lose our perception of time, place, and identity. I’ve read it takes on an average of two to four years (in my case it was three) for parents to begin to reorient themselves, find a new point of reference.

Which is why, I think, most grieving parents need a project after a child dies. Whether it’s building some kind of memorial, establishing a foundation in our child’s memory, writing a book, planting a tree, or getting a tattoo, we need a destination, a finish line, something toward which to journey.

As I’ve written many times in these blogs, after Laurie died, I became drawn to contemplation and meditation, to Buddhism and the Christian mystics. For many years, I struggled because there seemed to be no goal, no finish line. Indeed, much of what’s on the market these days on contemplation and meditation stresses the need not to have a goal. Simple “awareness,” you will read, is what you should practice.

But it wasn’t until I started focusing on my higher power, the God of My Not Understanding, as a sort of final destination that I was able to feel grounded, then healed. Now, for twenty minutes once or twice a day, I sit in what I call contemplation, but think of as an interior pilgrimage toward the Great Mystery. I never reach my goal, sometimes feel as if I don’t even take a step, but I need that destination, that finish line.

The genius of programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon is that they clearly lay out a spiritual journey toward a destination—twelve steps toward what’s often called serenity. And one of the first things you learn is that the steps are in order. You need to start with step one—“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable”—before you can go to the next step and the step after that until you get to number Twelve—“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

Working the steps, then, is looking toward a kind of finish line. Crossing this finish line doesn’t mean you’re finished. Long-time members tell me that you just start over again at a different level, sort of like finishing the first heat of the Olympic trials and moving on to the next heat, until eventually, you get to the Main Event.

At my age, the Main Event—what poet A.E. Housman called “the road all runners come”—is fast approaching. Will that be the final finish line? I can’t believe it is, maybe because I just can’t imagine my life—or death—without another finish line to head towards. Life, I read, is always evolving; the universe is always expanding. Why not death?

Or maybe I’m wrong and in death I will finally just be.

Then, perhaps I’ll understand gymnastics.

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I’m giving my granddaughter a “10.”

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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/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making Assumptions

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When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”

—Oscar Wilde

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Mary Lee and I are planning a trip to Africa. We’re reading up on where we think we might like to go and watching YouTubes made by people who’ve taken trips there. I’ve just finished Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. We’re getting shots for typhoid and hepatitis, and reading up on the kind of pills we need for malaria and what bug sprays to take along.

Planning, writers on pilgrimage agree, is essential to the pilgrimage experience.

What I need to be careful about is that I don’t confuse making plans with making assumptions. I’m better at separating the two—one of the benefits of aging (they do exist)—but I still fall prey to the anxieties, delusions, and disappointments that occur when I make assumptions about what’s going to happen, whether on a pilgrimage, retreat, or quick trip to the grocery store.

Several years ago, as Mary Lee and I planned our pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I assumed the old city would look like all the photographs and paintings I’d seen of glorious holy sites and people kneeling quietly in prayer. Israel, I assumed, would look like the 23rd Psalm: green pastures and still waters. I assumed I would be filled with awe and reverence. I did not assume how steep the streets are, how relentlessly hot the weather can be, and how the crowds could at times be suffocating; nor that I would become sick with dysentery, and that most of the holy sites were swarming with packs of children hounding us for money. Only later—when I returned home, really—did I recognize how important a pilgrimage I’d made. But my assumptions, I think, ruined much of my actual time there.

None of the YouTubes—and I saw a lot of them—on hiking St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose, Scotland to the Island of Lindesfarne off the coast of England prepared us for the hills and the cow shit. (See above photo.) None of the brochures on San Francisco prepared us for the mosquitos that attacked us one night in our hotel. On the other hand, when Mary Lee and I traveled to Iona off the west coast of Scotland, we assumed that a couple of days would be more than enough to cover an island just four miles long and a mile wide. The next year, we spent a week there and still didn’t feel as if we’d stayed long enough.

I’ve made similar faulty assumptions before going on a retreat. Once, I assumed I’d spend my time snowshoeing in the woods and spent it in bed with excruciating back pains. Another time, I thought I would enter a period of silence and slow time and wound up spending several days in tears, banging my head in rage against the side of my bed.

These previous pilgrimages and retreats have helped me learn to put aside preconceived notions about what may or may not happen and accept that what will be is what will be—a lesson I’m trying to carry over into my day-to-day pilgrimage through life. If I’m going to have lunch with some of my old classmates, I try not to assume I’ll wind up arguing over politics and spend that morning getting ready to do battle, because if the subject of whoever’s President never comes up, (which it often doesn’t) I’ve wasted the morning. If I’m going to be spending time with my one, two, and five-year-old grandchildren, I’ve learned that to assume they’re going to arrive at the house wanting me to fix them oatmeal and read books and go to a playground is only going to make both them and me miserable.

It’s taken thirty years, but I’ve learned never to assume how I will be each year from November to Christmas—the two months I spent at my daughter’s bedside when she was dying of cancer. Some years, I’m overly angry or forgetful or sad or sick. Last year, I realized that I wasn’t any of those things; that, in fact, I was cheerful and looking forward to Christmas—until the anniversary of Laurie’s death, when I suddenly spasmed into tears.

Assumptions illustrate how, as the Buddhists say, “We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.” The year after Laurie died, besides being angry, I was confused and afraid. But what I wrote in my journal that year were rants about news articles in which I disdained everyone else for being confused and afraid: book sellers for pulling Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses off their shelves because of fear of Muslim reprisals; people for taking anti-depressants because they were afraid of not feeling happy all the time. These days, I find myself fighting the assumption that because I’m not as strong as I was fifty years ago, neither is my country; that because I’m going to die within the next twenty or so years, the United States will as well.

I find it interesting that when we talk about assumptions, we do not have them, we make them. Assumptions, then, are what we create, we fabricate. There’s also the implication that what we create is false, as when we assume a role in a play or assume a pseudonym. We make these assumptions, I think—okay, I make assumptions, I think—in order to bolster the ego, convince myself that I have control over the future, hide my anxieties about the unknown.

The problem is that these assumptions keep my mind closed to possibility, to mystery. Last week, I ran across a quote by Albert Einstein:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no long wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.

One thing I do now to try to avoid making assumptions is to end each day asking, “What surprised me today?” Not all of these surprises are, of course, pleasant ones—yesterday I was surprised to find caterpillar nests in the beautiful apple blossoms on the tree at the end of our street—but the practice has opened me up a little more to some of life’s mysteries. And at my age, I want to be open and standing in awe as long as I can. My candle’s going to go out pretty soon anyway; I don’t want to snuff it ahead of time.

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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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