The River

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“Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river…”— Jorge Luis Borges

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Pulled by currents you don’t understand, you swing off the interstate at the exit to the small New England town in which you grew up, park the car on Main Street, and walk down the hill to where the river meets the harbor. On this crisp autumn afternoon, you stop on the bridge, both of you granulated with age, and gaze upstream, feeling the memories wash over you.

As the river rounds the bend from just below where you used to live, the waters are placid and brown. You remember swimming in those brown waters, despite the threat of your mother’s hairbrush, dogpaddling through chicken parts, dead fish, and raw sewage that drifted down from the upper falls, which from a distance was this white rush of water gamboling over great gray rocks, and you wonder if that’s why you go to church despite friends’ disdain and theological questions that bob like chicken guts—if you aren’t paddling along, trying to stay afloat, praying to catch a glimpse of Grace flowing from the chalice.

At the bend, a granite rock juts out from a bank. It reminds you of the rock further upstream on which you used to sit, watching water flow by, imagining the river taking you to far-off countries filled with adventure and romance. You still like to travel, still find traveling rejuvenates you, educates you, makes you a little less rigid.

Just before the foundation of an old sawmill, the river picks up speed, and rushes toward you, sunlit white water over mossy rocks. It’s 1959, and you’re standing on this bridge, watching the water, inhaling the smell of burning leaves—smoky fragrance of passion. She stands beside you. Sun splashes her pixie-cut. Cats-eye glasses sparkle. A smile of dimples and braces. You take her hand. Hear her laughter flow with the gushing river.

Now you stand alone on the bridge and look down to where the river slows and runs over old foundations crumbling under murky waters. You think of the good-bye letter she sent you in college … sight of her in waitress-whites grinding a cigarette into the pavement as she stepped from a car … gossip of affairs with teachers, abortion … recent rumors of dementia … Facebook picture of white-gold hair, moles, wrinkles, and the flabby ears you all have these days. You think of your own crumbling walls: divorce, a daughter’s death, defeats, surgeries, addictions, rejections …

Checking for traffic (something you never had to do in 1959), you cross the bridge to watch the water run under the interstate overpass, then empty into the harbor still filled with sailboats, cabin cruisers, and lobster boats. For the last ten years of his life, your father had a boat there, and you recall the Labor Day weekend he offered to take you fishing. That was the weekend the resentments that had smoldered for years at the roots of your first marriage ignited and you packed your clothes into the older of your two cars and drove to spend the holiday with your parents before looking for a place to live.

Despite bitching about what he thought was a stomachache (the cancer wouldn’t be diagnosed for a couple of months), you both walked along the docks to a slip at the far end, where his sixteen-foot outboard sat like an afterthought amid all the other pleasure crafts. Even a hundred pounds overweight, your father still moved with the easy grace of the athlete he was as he unbuttoned the canvas top of the boat and untied the mooring ropes. As you puttered down the river, you sat in the stern and watched him at the wheel, seeing him perhaps for the first time, not as a hero or an effigy to be burned, but as a man who always did the best he could with the tools he had.

Rounding another bend, you headed out into Casco Bay. Your father asked you to get him a Blue Ribbon and to take one for yourself. You trolled a little for mackerel. You don’t remember if you caught any fish. You don’t recall what you talked about, only that it felt good to be with your dad as he piloted you past the rocks and through the shoals and the seaweed and the occasional dead fish floating belly-up.

Filled with regret for not spending more time with your father and gratitude for having had that day, you stand on the bridge and look through the overpass at the river. Watch it leave the harbor and disappear around a bend under a steep bank of maple and birch trees. At the top of that bank is the cemetery where stones honoring your father, mother, and daughter lie under gnarled maple trees. You feel the river pulling you, imagine yourself being taken downstream to the cemetery and beyond, into a vast, unknown ocean that awaits us all.

But not yet. The same mysterious currents that brought you here today now pull you in another direction. You lift your eyes to the interstate calling you to family and friends and places you have yet to see and people you have yet to meet. The river will bring you here again, but for now it’s time to turn and walk back up the hill to the car.

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Listening to the Breath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Emptiness

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Gazing at the figure, I felt a physical reaction, a shiver, or perhaps more like the quiver of a struck bell. And I guess I wasn’t the only one who resonated to Romanian artist Albert Gyorgy’s “Melancolie”: the sculpture went viral on Facebook a few weeks ago. I wasn’t surprised that many comments came from viewers who’d suffered a great loss. A fellow grieving father responded: “We may look as if we carry on with our lives as before. We may even have times of joy and happiness. Everything may seem ‘normal.’ But THIS, ‘Emptiness,’ is how we feel … all the time.”

Later that same week, I mentioned to an old friend that the hole left in my heart by the death of my daughter would never go away. He seemed surprised and upset. “I had no idea,” he said. “I thought because you’re a Christian, your faith would sustain you. I feel sorry for you.”

No, I wanted to say, don’t feel sorry for me. My faith does help me. My life isn’t sad. My life is in some ways more joyful than it’s ever been. I continue to have a close relationship with Laurie. I—

And as I felt myself thrashing about, frustrated at not having the words to describe what it’s like to lose a child, I realized what an intricate and perplexing landscape this emptiness through which I journey really is.

There’s the idea of emptiness as Void, empty of meaning. It’s a frightening place. When my ex-wife phoned me with the news that what we’d always thought was a harmless sebaceous cyst on the back of our daughter’s head was malignant, I felt the ground opening under my feet. I remember needing to grab on to the counter I was standing beside. Mary Lee has since told me that when I picked her up at school later that day and she opened the door to the car, she felt an icy emptiness even before I told her the news.

The title of the sculpture, “Melancolie,” or melancholy, refers back to medieval medicine and to one of the four “humours,” black bile, thought to cause what we today call depression. This, too, is a kind of emptiness, at least when I look at some of the therapy websites that define emptiness as “a negative thought process leading to depression, addiction…”—both of which I’ve stumbled through since Laurie died.

But over those same years, I’ve also found that emptiness can be something to cultivate rather than cure.

My first readings about emptiness were from existentialists like Albert Camus, who saw meaninglessness as a reality of life, but who posited that we can and should create our own meaning. From there, I dabbled in Buddhism, where Emptiness is a central precept. But as I understand it, Buddhists do not believe life is meaningless; rather, that our images of ourselves as separate, independent entities don’t exist: they’re delusions, empty of meaning. When we can understand this meaning of emptiness, we realize that we are part of what the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being,” which is the basis for wisdom, bliss, compassion, clarity, and courage.

Then, as I’ve written about before in these blogs, I learned a form of Christian meditation called “Centering Prayer,” which is based on “kenosis,” or “self-emptying.” As Saint Paul wrote in Philippians: Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave ….” Notice how many of the parables in the Bible advocate giving up everything, whether it’s Jesus telling the young man to give up his money and possessions and follow him, or the Good Samaritan giving up his money and time to minister to the man who’d been beaten and robbed, or the servant condemned for burying his one Talent.

And it was through practicing kenosis—entering into the emptiness I felt after Laurie died, giving up my image of myself as grieving parent—that I was able to feel Laurie’s renewed presence in my life. (For more on my experiences with Centering Prayer, see https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/06/)

Lately, I’ve been working a 12-Step program based on surrender, which as a speaker I heard recently said, “only happens when there’s nothing left.” Only when circumstances force you to see that all of your props, your addictions, have not only proved worthless in giving you what you need, but are actually keeping you unhappy, is it possible for you to give them up, empty yourself of them.

And yet. No matter how much I read about the subject, how often Laurie’s spiritual presence fills my emptiness, my daughter’s physical absence burns like an amputation. I will never have the chance to watch her face grow more interesting as it ages, never watch her take up a vocation, fall in love, perhaps have children.

And maybe that’s the price we pay for loving someone. A friend of mine who lost her husband a year ago recently sent me the following quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor and theologian:

Nothing can fill the gap when we are away from those we love, and it would be wrong to try to find anything. We must simply hold out and win through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time, it is a great consolation, since leaving the gap unfilled preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. He does not fill it but keeps it empty so that  our communion with another may be kept alive, even at the cost of pain.

So, emptiness for me is another landscape through which I pilgrimage—four steps forward, three steps back, two steps side-ways, circling, backtracking. Sometimes the views are bleak and dismal and the path is strewn with the rocks and roots of depression and addiction, but more and more often these days, as I’ve surrendered my seventy-year-old resentments at people long gone from my life, my judgmentalism, my shame over not being perfect, I’ve seen some magnificent vistas, felt fresh air tickling what little hair I have left, heard birds singing hymns of grace.

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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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