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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Cruising Through Heart Surgery

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“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

—Woody Allen

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In trying to clean up a bit after what’s been an interesting, to say the least, month, I found the guide for the cruise Mary Lee and I had booked for this summer. Turns out I wound up with a different itinerary.

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Thursday, July 18, 2019: Transfer from Oslo, Norway Airport to Hotel Bristol, Oslo. Oslo is … a medieval and Renaissance gem….

Thursday, July 18, 2019: Drive into Portland as the moon sets over Maine Medical Center. Check in, get a body shave, talk with my anesthesiologist, and then lose consciousness until I feel my esophagus being ripped out. Mary Lee, who’s been waiting for me to come to, tells me the breathing tube has just been removed.

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Friday, July 19 & Saturday, July 20: See gargantuan snowcapped mountains, magnificent fjords, and one of Europe’s largest glaciers, as you travel to picturesque Bergen, an ancient city with deep Viking roots.

Friday, July 19:  ICU, Maine’s gargantuan Medical Center. Awake and panicky. Having trouble breathing. To prevent pneumonia, my nurse gets me up at 3:00 a.m. to sit in a chair until 5:30, when I go back to bed. Visit from P. from my 12-step program who works here. After someone tears drainage tubes out of my gut, I move from ICU to picturesque Room 104. Find the classical channel on TV and leave it on all night.

Saturday, July 20: Never could sleep on my back, just some drug induced Never-Never Land. Wake around 3:00 with a medicinal smell in my nose and a clattering of trumpets from the TV that sounds like a party of drunken horses. Spend the day getting to know my nurse as she escorts me between bed, chair, and bathroom. Decide to write a country & western song, “Lasix and Me.” Apparently, I’ve added ten pounds of fluid in my legs. Using a walker, I head down the hall with the nurse beside me and Mary Lee behind me with a wheelchair, which is good because I have to sit down after about 60 feet. Get my own incentive spirometer. Can barely bring it to 500 mg.

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Sunday, July 21: Bergan, Norway. Enjoy a relaxing tour by deluxe motor coach as you tour the main sites… Hear interesting stories about Bergen’s colorful past…

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Sunday, July 21: Nice visit from my colorful rector, who’s supposed to be on vacation, and B. from Men’s Group, who’s full of interesting stories. Walk without a walker further down the hall and back, but still have to rest in the wheelchair half-way through. Spirometer up to 750 mg. Down two pounds of fluid.

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Monday, July 22: Cruise to Geirangerfjor … Seven Sisters Waterfall…the Suitor waterfall…Eagles Bend towers…

Monday, July 22: Cruise down the hall to 111A, where I now share a room with J. When he orders a lobster roll and French fries for lunch, I almost throw up. Since Thursday, I’ve choked down a bowl of cereal, a fruit cup, and a container of yogurt. No waterfalls, but I do have my first shower. Make it around the nurses’ station without walker or wheelchair, and get the spirometer up to 1000 mg. Nice visits from friends and clergy. My nurse tells me I should go home tomorrow.

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Tuesday, July 23: At Sea: Relax, Renew, Recharge at The Spa. … peruse our Library…

Tuesday, July 23: Maine Med. & Home. Still not sleeping, so I’m awake when they come to give me a chest x-ray at 5:15 a.m. Get word I have a “slightly collapsed” left lung, so go for another x-ray at noon, then wait 20 minutes in what feels like a refrigerated meat locker for transport back to my room. Take another shower to warm up. Finally get word that the second x-ray shows no change and that my surgeon isn’t worried. I can go home. Which means another two hours of paperwork plus getting rid of all the rest of the IV portals and wires. See myself. I look like a zippered pincushion.

Home! Feel as if I’ve gone 15 rounds with a black rhino.

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Wednesday, July 24: Travel among the majestic mountains and fishing villages of the beautiful Lofoten Islands…

Wednesday, July 24: Two hours with R. from home health care. Two concerns: my back, which looks like I might be developing sores that can lead to infection, and my lungs, neither of which seems to be operating at anywhere near capacity. Try to do three ten-minute walks around majestic Willow Grove.

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On a nice note (pun intended), receive more personal mail today than I’ve had in the last six years.

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Thursday, July 25: Tromso, Norway. Meet your local guide and drive through the city known as the “Gateway to the Arctic”…

Thursday, July 25: Don’t quite make a mile around Willow Grove, but following the advice of Dr. R.’s nurse to put a pillow under my arm, am able to sleep on my side and as a result, get the best night’s sleep I’ve had in over a week. Feeling more improvement. After watching me climb stairs, get in and out of bed and get up and down from the toilet, PT person from home health services says I don’t need her.

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Friday, July 26: Honningsvag, Norway. Take in …one of Europe’s most stunning natural sights…. The cliffs of Nordkapp rise more than 1,000 feet from the sea waters and are topped by a large, flat plateau…

Friday, July 26: So much for stunning self-confidence: Today’s nurse, J., is concerned about possible infection in the incisions made in my legs to get the vein for part of the by-pass, so I’m blaming myself for not paying more attention to these incisions and for wearing the same pair of pants for three days. Now, these incisions seem to burn, and my face feels hot. Convinced I have a fever.

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 Saturday, July 27 & Sunday, July 28: At sea. Designed in the spirit of the boutiques along the world’s finest boulevards, we are proud to feature our onboard shops…clothing and handicrafts … jewelry and …cosmetics and skincare products.

Saturday, July 27: a night of catastrophizing. When I went to bed, my feet felt hot and tingly, and within fifteen minutes I’d developed kidney failure, started dialysis, and died. Tried Thich Nhat Hahn breathing exercises, prayers, psalms, replaying the 1961 Class L State Basketball championship game. This morning after two phone calls, one to home health, one to the surgeon’s office, I’m told my options are to ride it out or go to the emergency room. Decide to ride it out. Walk up to the community garden (Mary Lee gives me a ride back.) Something cheerful about gardens.

Sunday, July 28: Best night’s sleep so far. Increase my walking to 15 minutes each time. Feet feel fine, but because I have to have something to fret about, I’m concerned about my faster heart rate.

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Monday, July 29: Shetland Islands… Farmland and dreamy meadows unfold toward seal-dotted beaches. Columnar sea stacks and rocky cliffs… Medieval castles… Shetland ponies…

Monday, July 29: I’ve had three major operations and The Lord of the Rings has pulled me through each time. More aware this reading of the beauty of the language and the underlying sadness that runs through the entire trilogy. Even if the Ring-Bearer is successful against Evil, the world the characters know will fade away. Realize that despite priding myself on my ability to keep growing, keep changing, my life as I know it is slipping away—culturally, politically, physically—and today I want to cry.

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Tuesday, July 30: Orkney Islands.  …embark on a scenic drive to the Ring of Brodgar, the finest known circular stone ring from the early Bronze Age…follow the coastline of Scapa Flow…

Tuesday, July 30: My sister brings over lobster rolls for lunch, as well as the obituary for my great-grandfather Bennett.

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Ever since I got the diagnosis of a blocked artery, I’ve been asking: why me? My cholesterol levels have been low, as has blood pressure, and heart rate. I’ve always been a walker and watch my weight and what I eat. Turns out, you can’t fight your DNA. Grampy Bennett’s obit reads like an autopsy: “at 6:00 p.m. last Saturday night, Clifford Bennett, age 63, died suddenly in his kitchen of acute indigestion. He’d been in good health prior.” Googling “acute indigestion,” I find that up until the 1920’s that was the term for what we now know were heart attacks, often brought on by the same blocked main artery that I had.

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Wednesday, July 31. Edinburgh, United Kingdom. See highlights of Scotland’s capital city…from gracious architecture to a storied castle…

Wednesday, July 31. Our gracious friends J & D bring over supper for tonight: a shrimp and rice casserole with coleslaw. J’s had a stroke, a by-pass, and a valve replacement, and has just taken up rollerblading again.  While I’m inspired enough to try walking without either my hiking poles or a walking stick, I’m not about to get on any damned roller skates, thank you very much.

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Thursday, August 1: At Sea. We invite you to browse our selections of cutting-edge activewear at our onboard shop.

Thursday, August 1: Nice evening walk to water the garden, but then noticed before going to bed that my left ankle was swollen again. Spent the night browsing my Catalogue of Really Ugly, Horrible, Awful Things that Might Happen. Finally took Tylenol and slept until almost 8:00 a.m. Called my twelve-step sponsor and feel better.

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Friday, August 2 & Saturday, August 3: London. Discover Greenwich’s maritime and royal history by foot… Shakespeare’s Globe Theater… West End musicals…Tower Bridge… the London Eye. Return home.

Friday, August 2: Mary Lee is off with one of the grandchildren, so I get up, meditate, go for a walk, fix and eat breakfast by myself—a first! Home health nurse says I’m doing well. Still some “crackling” in my lung and some swelling in my ankle, but I’m walking faster and standing straighter. Can keep the spirometer’s button in the smiley face area for over 5 seconds each time.

Saturday, August 3: the day we should have been flying home, ending our original cruise. For this cruise through heart surgery, I’ve still got at least another month. I don’t know what I’d have learned from those majestic mountains and castles and villages, but I have definitely learned at least two things on this trip I’m on now. First, I’m not in control. Three months ago, I had no idea I had anything wrong with my heart. Now, I don’t seem to have any command over how I’m doing each day, either physically or emotionally; all I can do is surrender my life to the God-of-my-not-Understanding.

Second, I live primarily through Grace, in this case, the compassionate professionalism of my doctors and nurses, the cards and visits and emails from friends, and the unwavering love and support of my family, especially Mary Lee.

Not to mention the Grace to have accepted my surgeon’s advice and not put all this off until next week.

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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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Climbing (Part of) Mount Kilimanjaro

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The first morning of my recent trip to Tanzania, I went out on our cabin porch and the first thing I saw was Mount Kilimanjaro, its snow-capped peak rising over a blue jacaranda tree into cotton clouds and a blue sky. It was breathtaking … for a minute or two.

Then my demons woke up. Ever since Mary Lee and I had reviewed our itinerary back in the spring, I’d had apprehensions about the second day of our trip: a hike up part of Kilimanjaro. It wasn’t much a climb, if you were a climber or if you were fifty-five instead of seventy-five, but the idea of trekking eight kilometers (about five miles) up the mountain and then the same distance back at an altitude that began at 1879 meters (or 6165 feet, higher than any mountain on the East Coast of the United States) filled me with not a little trepidation.

Compounded by the fact that I felt I had to do it or I would somehow be a failure, less of a man. All my life I have measured my worth by what I’ve done. Probably because I grew up in an alcoholic family, shame has been the driving force in my life, and the approval of others my drug of choice, far more addictive than booze or caffeine.

That first day, while Mary Lee and I rested from our 18-hour trip by touring a coffee plantation, I kept glancing up at Kilimanjaro—or where I knew the mountain was; most of the day, it was hidden by clouds—wondering, Can I do this? What will people think of me if I can’t make it?

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The next day, Rashid, our guide came to our cabin to pick us up. Short and wiry in his mesh REI baseball cap, sweatshirt, and jeans, he looked about eighteen (although I found out later, he was in his late thirties). During the hour drive to Kilimanjaro National Park, as he talked to our driver in Swahili, I wondered if they were talking about us—okay, talking about me—my pot belly, my hunched back. Climbing a long flight of stairs from the parking lot to the Kinapa Headquarters, my lungs burned and my heart raced. There’s no way in hell I can do this!

While we were taking pictures at the Marangu Gate Entrance, I told Rashid, “Look, my wife and I do a lot of walking, but not much climbing. I’m not sure we can make it to the Mandara Huts and back.”

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Rashid grinned. “No problem,” he said. “We’re here to enjoy the mountain. Poli Poli. Slowly, slowly.”

When I start walking, my tendency is to begin at brisk pace and then slow down when I get out of breath, speed up, slow down…. Rashid set out on about the same pace I use when I’m going from the TV set to the bathroom. I took it personally. What kind of whimp does he think I am? I wanted to speed up. Maybe we could do the whole hike after all.

But Rashid seemed to be enjoying himself. He walked ahead of me, hands behind his back, looking around, a smile on his face. I found I had the breath to ask him questions about his life as a guide. He said he started as a porter. As a guide for the last fifteen years, he’d climbed all eight routes to the summit. When I said it must be dull walking with two old people like us, he replied, “No, I always find something beautiful to see. Kilimanjaro is my office.”

On the plane ride from the States, I’d read that Kilimanjaro has five ecological zones. We were hiking through the second zone of dense rain forest. Huge tree ferns surrounded us. Rashid pointed out sycamore trees, junipers, and some incredible moss called “old man’s beard” hanging from their branches. He showed us red gladiolas, a lily with yellow and red spikes, a yellow hibiscus, and “impatiens Kilimanjaro,” which only grows on this mountain and whose blossoms look like pink seahorses with yellow tails.

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Jambo.” A young woman in a red and brown striped skirt and a bright tourquoise bandanna around her head passed us as if we were standing still. She carried a large knife.

Jambo.” Rashid returned the traditional Swahili greeting. It seemed to me they winked at one another. As she disappeared around a bend ahead, he told us that she was a member of the Chagga tribe, who use the forest for firewood, farming, beekeeping, and logging. I was envious of her youth, her grace, her speed.

Still, when we came to a steep rise, I was grateful for Rashid’s slow pace. Zig-zagging up rocks and roots, I noticed my lungs seemed to have adjusted to the altitude. Rashid began pointing out birds: boubous, hoopoes, hornbills, and my favorite, a turaco, sporting what looked like a purple mohawk haircut on a green head.

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Just before noon, we reached a rest area, which Rashid said was about half-way to the Mandara Huts. Now, I knew for certain there was no way we were going to do all of our scheduled hike. My nemesis Shame pointed his finger at me and laughed.

Six German hikers— beginning, they told us, their ascent to the summit—were finishing their lunch. Rashid and their guide talked in Swahili, while Mary Lee and I ate our sandwiches. As this guide was leaving, he smiled at Mary Lee, “Good-bye, Bibi.” He turned to me, “Good-bye, Babu.”

Rashid smiled. “That means “Grandmother and Grandfather.”

My spirits sank. Shame snickered. What, you think he thought you were Robert Redford in Out of Africa?

I don’t know if my disappointment showed or not, but Rashid added, “In Africa, that is a term of respect.”

I thought, Well, Grandfather is what you are, aren’t you? And aren’t you happy to be one? Then I realized that not only was I a grandfather to four kids under seven, but I could be the grandfather of any of the six German climbers. Our guide Rashid was ten years younger than my daughter would have been if she’d lived.

I had a brief vision of eighteen-year-old Laurie lying on her hospital bed, her labored breathing: “Ash…es, ash…es.” I saw my classmate Scott, one of the best athletes I’ve ever played with, struggling to get out of bed a month or so before he died.

Hell, you’re lucky to be anywhere on this mountain.

Shame was silent.

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We continued upward. The terrain grew steeper, the vegetation less dense. Suddenly Rashid stopped. “Over to your left. Blue monkey. You don’t see them on the ground much.”

Through the trees, I saw a bluish-black monkey ambling up some rocks. Male, probably 15 pounds, maybe two feet long, with another two feet of tail that looked like a piece of rope.

Would I have seen him, I wondered, if I’d been clamoring up the mountain intent only on getting to the Huts?

An hour or so later, we hit the steepest rise of our hike. Rashid said that at the top we’d see a waterfall. Mary Lee and I looked at each other, and I said what I’d never thought I’d hear myself say: “No, I think we’ve gone as far as we need to. We’re ready to go back.”

I don’t think we’d taken more than a few steps down the path before our guide pointed up. “Colobus monkeys!” Through an overhead canopy of leaves, I saw two large monkeys, black with white trim and magnificent white tails, peacefully munching away.

If we’d kept on climbing, I’d have missed them.

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The descent was faster and easier, not only because my lungs weren’t working as hard, but because it felt as if a weight had been removed from my shoulders. As we passed through the forest of variegated flowers, feathery ferns, and lichen-bearded trees, I wondered if what hadn’t lifted was the weight of responsibility to those self-images I keep creating. How often, I thought, have I been a slave to how I want people to see me: the varsity athlete, the Kerouac hipster, the wise, knowing teacher, the grieving parent raging against God, the great writer… always reacting; seldom receiving.

As we made our way down the last slope just before the entrance to Kilimanjaro, Rashid cautioned us, “Poli poli.”

“Yes, slowly slowly. Thank you,” I said, grateful not only for his concern, but also for the gift of the day.

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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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