Walking at Sunset

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After a wonderful but hectic Thanksgiving, Mary Lee and I spent a weekend on retreat at the Episcopal monastery of Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a place we’ve been coming to for twenty-five years in search of silence and slow time. On Saturday afternoon, because the sun sets in this part of the world around 4:00 p.m., I decided to catch the last daylight and take a walk before Evening Prayer.

As I left the monastery, the sun was buttering tiers of purple clouds over the Boston skyline. I jay-walked across Memorial Drive, turned right, and joined the joggers, walkers, and cyclists on the path along the Charles River—a mix of races I don’t see in Maine, some talking into microphones and headsets, others conversing with one another, possibly in Chinese.

After about a quarter of a mile, I passed the Riverside Boat Club. I turned left to cross the Eliot Bridge, pulling up the collar of my coat against a raw wind coming down the river. The late afternoon sun and clouds reflected in the rippling waters of the Charles, the lengthening shadows of the sycamores, and the dank, November wind all churned up memories of another wind coming down another river thirty years earlier. I saw myself walking back from the Eastern Maine Medical Center to the Ronald McDonald House after spending the day watching my eighteen-year-old daughter die a little more from the cancer ravaging her body. I recalled the Christmas tree sellers in their vans and pick-up trucks in Cascade Park at the bottom of the hill across from the Penobscot River and how Christmas seemed at the time like some horrible joke played on the human race by a sadistic god promising peace on earth, good will to all, and then inflicting more war, poverty, disease, and death on us suffering buggers.

Now, however, I realized as I turned left after the bridge and started walking along Storrow Drive, that although I could still vividly picture details from my walk back from the hospital—the seagulls circling over the river, the mansard roofs on the houses—I could no longer feel the anger, confusion, and shame that once consumed me. Thanks to prayer and meditation and spiritual direction—much of which happened at the SSJE monastery—I’ve had joy as well as pain since Laurie’s death. Last summer I had heart surgery which has given me renewed hope that I may be around to watch my grandchildren grow up.

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The sun dropped, gilding the tops of buildings on my right. The clouds became red and gray. Just outside a patch of skim ice near the shore of the river, a dozen geese floated tranquilly, while on the other side of me, rush hour traffic hurdled by. Horns honked.

The geese reminded me of my father-in-law, George, who used to urge his employees to work like ducks on the water: calm and serene on the surface, paddling like hell underneath. He was the one who introduced me to this walk around the Charles; he made it almost every day. One of the most gracious men I’ve ever known, he and his wife Elaine retired to Cambridge to an apartment just three doors down from the monastery, which made it that much easier for Mary Lee and me to become part of the SSJE community.

Hearing the whooshing traffic, I recalled that George used to carry a plastic bag with him when he walked here, collecting what he called “street glass,” bits of broken head and tail lights from the innumerable accidents caused by Massachusetts drivers along Memorial and Storrow Drives. By the time Elaine died and George left 985 Memorial Drive for a retirement community in Lexington, he’d collected enough colored glass and plastic to fill I don’t know how many glass jars, which reposed on bookcases and windowsills all over the apartment.

Looking across the river back at Memorial Drive, I imagined Elaine, standing in front of her window, holding her glass of gin, watching the sunset behind me before heading back to the kitchen to finish preparing another of her gourmet dinners. She used to rate sunsets; I thought she might give this one a “7” or an “8.” So I made it a “7.5.”

When she died, her service was held in the monastery, and I remembered the Brothers’ chanting, and the reception back at the apartment, monks mingling with the family of academics, doctors, and journalists I married into. When George remarried, four years later, it was in the monastery, as was his funeral ten years after that.

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The SSJE Monastery from across the Charles River

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Crossing the Weeks Foot Bridge in front of Harvard’s Leverett and Dunster Houses, I realized what an important part the monastery and the Brothers have played in my life for the last twenty-five years. I walked back Memorial Drive, past Winthrop and Eliot Houses, through John F. Kennedy Park, recalling my spiritual directors who guided me along the rocky road of grief—showed me that I couldn’t keep thinking of Laurie as some photograph in an old album, that if I actually believed in this thing called resurrection,  I needed to father an ongoing relationship with her, think of her as being somehow present, here and now.  And indeed, the first time after her death when I felt her touch was as I sat at a desk in one of the guest rooms of the monastery.

I thought about how my retreats and pilgrimages intertwine, like the design on the Celtic cross tattooed on my forearm. Yes, I go to the monastery on retreat to withdraw from what Jesus and St. Paul call “the world,” but I’m also making a pilgrimage to answer a call, draw near the sacred, find a source of healing, and pay homage to those I think of as the saints in my life: Laurie, George, Elaine, the Brothers who have died, like Brother Eldridge, who helped me see that like the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I can wait in continual hope for my child, sending out my love in the confidence that she’ll receive it, or Brother John, my first spiritual director, who told me, “No, I can’t help you cut down on your drinking, but if you decide you want to quit, I’ll do everything I can to help you.” Or those Brothers who continue to buoy me, like Brother Curtis, the first monk I ever talked to here, and Brother James, whom I’ve watched lose hair, put on thirty pounds, and become Brother Superior at SSJE.

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By the time I opened the gate and entered the monastery courtyard, the sun had disappeared; inky layers of clouds, however, were still striated with gold. Streetlights glowed and lambent windows in the apartments along Memorial Drive looked warm and urbane. The illuminated cross in front of the door to the guest house welcomed me home. Although I’d been gone less than an hour and had walked maybe two miles, it felt like a much longer journey.

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Of Luck and Grace

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The First Thanksgiving, 1621—J.L.G. Ferris/The Foundation Press, Inc./Library of Congress

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The first time I ever heard about “pilgrims” was as a kid learning about some people by that name who sailed to America to have Thanksgiving dinner. Later, I learned it was a little more complicated than that—that these people were actually “Separatists” who had broken from the Church of England and come to this country by way of Holland in search of religious freedom. But they thought of themselves as pilgrims (the first child born in the Plymouth Colony was named “Peregrine,” which means pilgrim), travelers on a journey to find a home where they could worship the God of their understanding. The name stuck.

My sister tells me that she, my brother, and I are the descendants of John and Priscilla Alden and George and Mary Soule, couples who came over on the Mayflower, which may account for why I think of myself as a pilgrim and why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It’s a day to be with family and to give thanks.

This year, however, besides counting blessings, I’ve also been thinking a lot about luck.

Last spring, when I happened to mention to my family doctor during a routine follow-up to an earlier procedure that I was getting more and more out of breath, he told me to get a stress test and get it soon. Which I did and which led to an arterial catheterization which led to by-pass surgery. Now, I feel great. I have more energy than I’ve had in years.

I want to thank God for my good fortune, feel that I’ve been blessed. Except: as anyone who’s read this blog knows, the pivotal point in my life was the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter in 1988. Laurie didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t even eat meat. Still, she was the victim of Primitive Neuroectodermal Tumor, a rare and virulent cancer that when it strikes, usually attacks much younger children.

So how can I thank God for my life, while letting God off the hook for Laurie’s death?

Since my surgery in July, two men whom I’d known fairly well dropped dead from the same type of blocked left main artery that I had. Both men were active; both seemed healthy; neither was overweight; both died while exercising. Why am I still alive and they’re not?

I’m reminded of the evening of September 11, 2001, when our church held a meeting for all those who wanted to respond to the bombings of the twin towers and of the pentagon. At one point, a woman—let’s call her Agnes—rose and said that her son had been working that day in the South Tower, but that he was safe. “I want to take this opportunity to thank God for protecting my son four times.” Agnes said. “God showed him the way down the stairs. He moved him out of the way of fallen debris twice. He provided my boy with a private boat to offer him a ride across the river to Hoboken. I’m so grateful!”

I was happy for the woman. I was sure her son was a great guy. But I asked myself then and I ask myself now: why did God save him and let 7,000 other people die?

So although I want to thank God for my being able to be sitting here tapping out this blog instead of moldering in an urn under the snow in our family’s cemetery plot, I have to think that I was lucky, just as my daughter was unlucky enough to carry the wrong combination of inherited DNA to make her susceptible to the cancer than killed her.

Does this mean I’m not grateful this Thanksgiving? That I don’t think my Higher Power affects my life? That I’m not blessed?

Absolutely not.

As I think about how “unlucky” I was when Laurie died, and how “lucky” I am now, I find a common thread. In both instances I’ve seen, as I usually don’t, just how precious, how holy life is. I’ve never enjoyed the autumn foliage as much as I have this year. I don’t even mind (much) standing in line at the grocery checkout line.

I’m also aware, even though it’s hard to articulate, of a growing sense that this life is always being renewed, even reborn. That what I, as a Christian, call resurrection didn’t just happen once to one person, but happens to all of us many times. Someone said to me the other day that I looked like a new man. Well, in some ways, I am. I have a new heart.

Getting that new heart was at times painful; still, it was nothing like thirty years ago, when Laurie’s death broke me open. But although that hurt in ways I hope I’ll never have to feel again, her death also opened me to receive love and joy that I’d never experienced before in my closed off, child-of-alcoholic, New England male life. And it’s this experience that I’m guessing we’ve all had sometime in our lives—where from somewhere we get the strength not only to carry on but also to laugh and sing when by rights we ought to give up and die—that I give thanks for.

Which I think is the difference between luck and Grace. Luck depends on circumstances. Grace, on the other hand, is there for everyone all the time.

So I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving. This, despite sorrowful memories of my father, one of my grandmothers, and my mother-in-law all dying during the week of Thanksgiving, and a painful recollection of a Thanksgiving at the Ronald McDonald House after which Laurie’s two stepbrothers saw her for the last time. Or maybe those deaths actually help make the celebration more joyous. That when Mary Lee’s children and their families and her sister and sometimes her family come, we are surrounded by what St. Paul calls “Clouds of Witness.”

That these loved ones died, that my daughter-in-law is about to undergo surgery for cancer, and that one of my grandchildren is emotionally scarred from having been abused by her pre-school teacher is probably a matter of bad luck. That for the most part our families have the health and the means to come to our house for Thanksgiving and that Mary Lee and I feel well enough and are financially secure enough to host them is probably a matter of good luck. But that we are able to celebrate, to laugh, to cry, to love together is, I believe, a matter of Grace.

When I was finishing this blog, Mary Lee sent me a daily reading for November 22, 2019 (the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, appropriately enough) from a website called gratefulness.org.

Grief and gratitude are kindred souls, each pointing to the beauty of what is transient and given to us by grace.—Patricia Campbell Carlson

Yup. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

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Another Thanksgiving, a few years later…

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