Listening to the Breath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return to the Desert

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If I ever commit suicide, it will be in March. I can handle December, January, and February. Snow is supposed to fall; it’s supposed to be cold. But during March—at least here in Maine— winter drags on, gray and cold and windy, except for the occasional sunny day that turns everything to mud.

March is when my soul is at low tide. The world situation is scariest, the national political scene is its most indigestible, and people on the street turn into assholes. Looking after grandchildren, volunteer activities, hobbies—all of which I usually enjoy—become burdens.

As March began this year, besides everything else, I was still depressed over the seventeen students gunned down at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and the partisan politics blocking any kind of meaningful discussion over what to do about the bloodshed that threatens to drown this country. Closer to home, one of my oldest friends was dying of cancer, and watching one of the best athletes I ever played with struggle to get out of bed was a painful and foreboding glimpse of mortality.

Fortunately, this year, Mary Lee and were able to return to the desert, specifically to the Desert House of Prayer just outside Tucson, Arizona. Why there? What draws me, a geriatric who has spent almost his entire life in northern New England? What makes the desert a source of healing?

One reason, I suppose, is nostalgia. I have a picture of me at my birthday party—I’ve probably turned five or six—wearing a cowboy hat, chaps, shirt, and belt.

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Every Saturday afternoon, I watched Buck Jones, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, or Hopalong Cassidy chase bad guys through the sagebrush. I’d practice throwing my younger sister Jaye over my shoulder the way Gene Autry did when Black Bart tried to sneak up on him. After graduating from high school, I spent two summers working for the U.S. Forestry Department in the mountains of Idaho, where I wore a real cowboy hat and Frisco Jeans, fought forest fires, and picked up a little beer money throwing an axe into a tree from twenty-five feet away.

Maybe part of the appeal of the West, then, is recalling when l could tell the good guys from the bad guys by the color of their hats, and when I was as strong as I’ve ever been, and the world was new, and excitement was just over the next mountain. When the stars seemed so close at night that I knew I could grab one any time I wanted.

It was that sense of transcendence that I later found in contemplative prayer practices, which began in the deserts of Egypt in the early days of Christianity. I’ve always enjoyed reading about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who went to the desert to escape the Roman Government’s appropriation of Christianity, who practiced what has become known as the “Apophatic” way to God, where the presence of God may, as often as not, be perceived as an absence. In the stark silence of the desert, these men and women found a setting for what they referred to as “Agnosia,” or “unknowing.” Casting aside all images of God, they made themselves deserts, stripped of everything but the spark of soul that they felt was God.

After my daughter Laurie died of cancer, when the world had become a barren landscape of pain and confusion, frustration and doubt of everything and everybody, especially anything to do with the Christian faith I’d grown up with, this apophatic or “Negative Way” was the one thing that made sense. And I’m still more comfortable talking about who God isn’t than who or what God may or may not be. I suppose it’s no accident that my favorite gospel is Mark, which has been called the “desert gospel,” both for its starkness of language—it’s the shortest of the four gospels—and the location of many of its major scenes.

Beldan Lane, in his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, thinks of the desert as being like a vaccination, in which we are given a small amount of whatever we need healing from. In my case this year, I needed healing from a violent and grotesque world that had begun to seem overwhelming: increasing economic injustice, ugly racism, obscene wealth, and a government of Barnum & Bailey clowns and would-be big game hunters trampling on the Constitution. I needed some kind of antidote for my fear that every stomach ache, every pain in my back, every new mole on my body was cancerous. For a New Englander like me, the desert, with its tall Saguaro growing out of volcanic rock, the cholla and prickly pear cacti that left their spikes in my arms and legs as I walked past, the desert sage, mesquite, and creosote bushes provided the right shot of the grotesque and the painful.

But at the same time, the desert is also a place of surprise and beauty. The silence is thundering. The sunrises and sunsets are often spectacular. This time of year, the cacti are blossoming bright yellow and red. Rabbits poke along under the creosote bushes. The songs of doves, cardinals, wrens, thrushes, and finches fill the air. On a morning hike last week, Mary Lee and I rounded a corner and met a coyote, who stared indifferently at me while I fumbled for my camera, and then, as if growing tired of my inability to get it out of my pocket, loped up a rocky hill toward a cave.

Later, thinking about the coyote, I remembered a quote by Andrew Harvey: “We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us.” I’m still not entirely sure why, but I think he’s right. In part, I guess, because the desert reminds me that I’m not the center of the universe. The coyote, the cacti, the rocks, the birds here exist independent of what I think or feel. The sun will rise and set no matter what condition my soul is in. Those volcanic red and gray rocks at my feet were here long before me and will remain long after I’m gone. I am but a small part of a fundamental creative force moving in all things. Bleak at times, but also breathtakingly beautiful.

So I’ve come home from the desert with a little more of “… the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” The political circus is still the same. The weather isn’t any better. (Two days after I got back, it snowed for three days.) My friend Scott died. Still, the desert has given me hope that even in desolation, even amidst the grotesque, even in death, life blooms. With or without me.

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In memory of Scott Dunham: 1943-2018

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The Pattern of Exodus

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The Crossing of the Red Sea, 1634, by Nicholas Poussin. Wikipedia.

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The first time I ever heard the word “exodus” was probably in Mrs. Raynes’s Sunday school class back around 1950, when we learned about the miracle—Mrs. Raynes was big on miracles—of Moses parting the Red Sea and leading the children of Israel to the Promised Land. A few years later, like half the civilized world, I saw Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments, and learned that Moses looked like Charleton Heston, turned wooden staffs into snakes, and wandered around the desert for forty years.

I thought of the word last week while on my exercise bicycle, reading Margaret Gunther’s Walking Home: From Eden to Emmaus, meditations on famous walks in the Bible. Gunther reminded me that the Israelites had first come to Egypt from Canaan to seek sanctuary from a famine that was sweeping the area. Some of you may remember the story of Joseph, son of Jacob, whose brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, but who rose to power, becoming Pharaoh’s right-hand man. In an act of forgiveness, Joseph invited his father and his eleven brothers to join him in relative comfort while the rest of the area was starving. Four hundred years later, however, the Egyptians had enslaved the descendants of Jacob until Charlton Heston—I mean, Moses—came to their rescue and led them to the land God had promised them.

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What intrigued me was Gunther’s observation that this pattern of exodus—from sanctuary to slavery to escape to arrival at the promised land—is an archetypal journey many of us take.

Peddling on, I thought of the sanctuary that was my home town, but which became, by the time I was seventeen, a prison I could hardly wait to escape. In college, I wandered a desert of unhappiness and confusion, until I found what seemed at the time, a promised land in Down East Maine. I recalled a marriage that began as a sanctuary from a hostile world’s assassinations, civil unrest, and a war that was killing off my friends, only to become a passive-aggressive battle with a woman I didn’t know, and skirmishes with addiction and self-flagellation, before an escape to the promised land of Mary Lee’s love and understanding.

Then my mind peddled on to my most recent exodus.

Most of you reading this blog know that my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of a rare cancer. Seeking sanctuary, I bought my grandparent’s house back in the town in which I’d grown up—the one I couldn’t wait to leave thirty years earlier. At the time, I would have told you that buying the house was like the Israelites crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land after forty years of wandering.

Adrift in a sea of uncertainty and sorrow, the house became my anchor. Looking into its history, I discovered that it had been moved a quarter of a mile from Main Street, that it had been built up, added on to, partially torn down, and remodeled countless times: a mirror, I felt, of what had happened to me over the years. I researched many of the people who had owned my house, found their gravestones, and discovered that almost all of them had lost children, which gave me the comfort in not being alone in my grief. The large maple tree in my backyard became my family tree, complete with a large broken limb jutting from the top.

I assumed I would live in that house until I died.

I’m not sure when this promised land turned to prison. There might have been a foreboding as early as when Mary Lee and I first moved in and I was in the process of turning what had been my grandparents’ dining room into my office. In order to have more space for my books, I was taking off to door to what had been a china cabinet, when I heard my grandfather’s voice: “And what do you think you’re doing, young man?”

Whether because I was afraid of pissing him off even more, or because I found the memories I had of the house comforting (this was the first house I lived in with my mother and grandparents after coming home from the hospital in 1943 while my father served in the Army overseas, the house I came to for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter dinners), I largely left the house the way I remembered it, which included drafty windows, worn linoleum, and a damp cellar that frequently flooded after storms. I never could call the house “my house,” without feeling as if I were lying. The house was always—and remains so in my mind—my grandparents’ house.

One day, shortly after the cellar had flooded again, I realized that I knew more people in the cemetery than I did in the local grocery store that had just completed its third expansion in twenty years. That I was spending almost every day driving to another town, because that’s where my job, my friends, and my church were. That my anchor had become a millstone.

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The house that will always be my grandparents’. Oh, and the roof leaked, too.

Still, it took retirement and the recognition that Mary Lee and I were going to have trouble keeping up the mortgage payments and the increasing taxes to spur us to move. Even then, leaving the house was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I remember walking through the empty house after the movers had left, listening to the echoes of footsteps and memories, wondering if I hadn’t made a terrible mistake.

But since then I’ve never regretted leaving. Have I found the promised land? It depends what “promised land” means, I guess. Certainly, compared to the thousands and thousands of people being forced these days into exoduses from their countries, I have. I’m happy where Mary Lee and I live. Still, I doubt if it’s permanent. We’re trying to budget our bucks so that, if necessary, we’ll be able to afford one of the assisted living facilities that have sprung up like mushrooms around here. But they’re not going to be any kind of promised land, either.

Growing older, I find myself thinking of the promised land as more of a frame of mind, a spiritual not a physical destination, not unlike pilgrimage, a place of freedom from bondage, a place of growth, and at the same time, a place of serenity—a word I’m coming to value more and more these days.

For now, I seem to have found it, but I expect that part of the archetypal pattern of exodus is that one never really gets to the promised land and stays there, at least not in this lifetime. (The Israelites were forced into exile in the 6th century BCE and again in 70 CE.) I expect that I’ve got one or two more exoduses ahead of me before the big one.

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