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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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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Hats for the Journey

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Mary Lee and I are getting ready for our next trip. This one is a cruise, something neither of us has ever been on before, and one of our concerns is what clothes we should pack. The information we’ve received is helpful—dress casually, plenty of active wear for sun and rain, no jeans at dinner… Still, I’m concerned, especially about what hats to bring.

Hats have always been a part of my life. Many early pictures show me wearing a hat. I started with one of my Grandfather Lufkin’s fedoras, and then graduated to having one of my own. (How many five-year-olds can you think of who had his own fedora?)

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I also remember getting a cowboy hat for a birthday present, and of course, my little league baseball caps. In early adolescence, I played trombone in a Dixieland band called the “Ivy Leaguers.” We wore chinos and plaid caps, both with belts in the back. During my senior year in high school, our basketball coach required us to wear not only a coat and tie to games, but also a hat, because he told us wearing a hat reduced our risk of catching cold.

We had no problem with this (my hat, I think, was an Alpine job with a small feather in the band), for in 1961, all men still wore hats. Men who worked blue-collar jobs wore caps while men who had white-collar jobs sported fedoras. (Usually. One of the things that made Art Carney so funny on the Jackie Gleason show was that his character, Ed Norton, wore a fedora and worked in the sewers.)  Even though he wasn’t employed by the railroad, Grampy Lufkin often wore a blue and white striped railroad cap; a lot of men did. My father wore a khaki colored cap to work in the summer and a green and black checked cap in the winter; then, after he retired and spent a lot of time fishing, he wore a long-billed cap called a “swordfish.” No matter the occupation, however, every man had at least one fedora for Sundays. (Women, too, always wore hats when they dressed up.)

As legend has it, all that changed when John F. Kennedy was elected President. As I understand it, he had a large head and didn’t like hats, so that when he was inaugurated, he eschewed the traditional top hat and went hatless, thus creating a precedent that lasted for several generations.

I still wore hats, however, usually either to keep my head warm in the winter or ward away bugs in the summer. And without really noticing, I added a hat here and a hat there, until today 30 hats hang in the garage by the back door, not to mention another three or four stocking caps tossed in with my gloves. Some hats I take with me on pilgrimage: summer and winter weight Irish caps when I’m going to the British Isles; wide-brimmed sun hats for Israel, Africa, and Arizona.

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For over twenty years, I’ve worn a Tilley Hat, complete with horse-hair hat band, for hiking. When I play the banjo, I wear a fiddler’s cap (sort of like a Greek fisherman’s cap) or an old fedora.

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I have a fedora for church, and all kinds of baseball caps—Boston Red Sox, Portland Sea Dogs (a Red Sox affiliate for those of you not from New England), a blaze orange one for hiking the woods in the fall, and one with a blackfly over the words, “Maine State Bird.” In preparation for summer, I just bought a new Panama.

How did that happen? Why am I so drawn to hats? I read somewhere recently that almost all of us collect one thing or another. One theory is that this desire is instinctual, going back to our early ancestors who stocked food, clothing, and so forth in times of plenty for the times of famine. Okay, but I don’t see a lot of pictures of cavemen in hats.

I know that some of my hats help me preserve the past; for example, my fedoras remind me of the men of my youth that I wanted to emulate. I have baseball caps reminding me of San Antonio, Texas, and of my MFA program. I bought a winter stocking cap in the Old City of Jerusalem when the temperature was at least 90°. The hat I wear most, year-round and both around town and on pilgrimages, is a long-billed swordfish cap that I bought to replace my father’s which I wore after he died until the strap in back broke. It keeps both sun and rain out of my eyes, can be worn under a hood, and, of course, reminds me of Dad.

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One day just before my daughter’s death, before going into a conference room with some of her doctors, I put an Irish tweed cap in a closet by the door, and someone took it—I’m assuming by mistake—and left me a cap like it, only with ear flaps for cold weather. I still often wear it in her memory.

After Laurie died, during probably the worst time in my life, Mary Lee and I went to Colorado for April vacation. There, I bought a cowboy hat and wore it the whole time. The hat made me feel like Tommy Lee Jones, plain-spoken, tough, in complete control. I’ve still got a couple of cowboy hats, one straw and one wool. For some reason, they always make me feel better when I’m upset or anxious about something.

I also find it calming to go out once or twice a year and rearrange hats.

As I think about it, I started adding hats when I began teaching high school English in Down East Maine. At a time when teachers were dressing more and more informally, I wore ties with matching pocket handkerchiefs, double breasted blazers, and bell-bottomed pants, all topped with either that Irish cap I wore before Laurie died, or a wool bucket hat that matched my topcoat. They validated me as “Mr. Wile,” just as, I suppose, my other hats validate me as a hiker, a writer, a musician, or a pilgrim.

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Do I really need this validation, especially now, at my age? Do my hats represent all my “false selves”—cowboy, adventurer, academic, musician, and so on—revealing my inability to get in touch with my real self? Are they a kind of role playing, or a form of security blanket, a way for me to hide from the world?

Maybe. But I’d like to think that they represent—even proclaim—that I am multi-faceted. That, as Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Perhaps my hats are a way to ask, “Who does God want me to be today?” That they are a cause to celebrate, not denigrate.

So, what do you think, maybe the swordfish cap and the new Panama for the cruise?

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Since 70

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I spent months living in dread of turning 70, because then I would be officially “old”—over the hill, past my prime, debilitated, enfeebled, ad infinitum. Well, four months shy of turning 76, I can honestly say being 70 isn’t bad, not bad at all.

Now, I’ve been lucky. No chronic disease to live with, no financial burdens. Mary Lee is well, and her sons and their wives have no major problems other than the common difficulties in raising a family and holding a job these days. The grandchildren are (usually) a delight.

My 70s, of course, have brought about physical changes that are pretty depressing. It seems as if every shower I find a new mole or lipoma to worry about. The hair in my ears grows faster than the hair on my head. My waist is expanding. I’m longer in the tooth and shorter in the leg. (For years I taught T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and never understood the line, “I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”) I can recall the lyrics to almost every popular song from 1957-65, but I can’t remember the names of the two women who’ve lived across the street for five years. I spend a half-hour a day hunting for something.

Over the last five years, I’ve become more aware of Newton’s Law of Inertia: an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion. It takes me twenty minutes of exercise when I get up in the morning for me to be able to move without hurting. Probably because of the exercise, however, my chronic back pain is less than it has been in years. Beginning a new piece of writing is like hiking through mudflats in hip boots, yet the ensuing drafts are more fun than they used to be. I like to walk, but now the first ten minutes or so, my lungs burn and I have trouble getting enough breath. Then, they clear out and I’m good to go, which often means walking too far because I don’t feel like stopping (it’s not like I have a job or anything to get to). Consequently, I’m stiffer and sorer when I get up the next day to do those exercises.

A bigger problem is that I don’t seem to be able to stop talking after I’ve run out of things to say. My father-in-law used to speak of being in his “anecdotage.” I understand. I have all these great stories that I know you’re just dying to hear, stories that will amuse, educate, and inspire you. So why are your eyes glazing over?

My tastes have changed. I eat less meat than I used to and more chocolate. I’ve grown fond of oatmeal, kale, and certain kinds of seaweed, and less interested in lettuce, potatoes—especially fries—and baked beans. Not always, but usually—and I’m still having trouble believing this—I’d rather have salmon than lobster, tuna steak than fried clams.

Two years ago, when we bought a car with satellite radio, I couldn’t wait to find the 50’s and 60’s music channels. That lasted about a month (If, for my sins, I go to Hell, “Itsy Bitsy Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” will play nonstop.) I tried “Elvis Radio” for about four hours, and “The Beatles Channel” for maybe two. I listened to a blue-grass station for a while, and then several country and western ones. Now, I’m almost always listening to a jazz or classical station. It’s not that I’ve necessarily grown more sophisticated—I play a banjo for heaven’s sake—the music just seems fresher and more varied.

Ever since my family bought its first television in 1953, I’ve watched televised sports, but now I can’t watch anything on the tube except for a championship game featuring some New England team. I’ve had it with the incessant number of commercials advertising products I don’t understand at a volume twice as loud as the programing. It was bad enough when sports became huge businesses, but now they’ve become politicized as well. I’m sorry, I watch sports to forget about what’s happening to this country. I’ll sit in the stands at a local college or high school game, if you don’t mind.

Something else I never expected: I’m learning to accept, even value, my increasing powerlessness. I’m not talking now only of my physical condition. Five years ago, I entered a 12-step program. Step One states, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” Everyone I’ve ever talked to in the program says that this is the hardest step of all. Admitting powerlessness runs counter to everything I, and I think most Americans grew up learning.

Like most of you, I expect, I was raised to be self-sufficient—“master of my fate… captain of my soul,” to quote one of my high school reading assignments . As an adult, I loved hear Frank Sinatra or Elvis sing,

For what is a man, what has he got?

If not himself, then he has naught

To say the things he truly feels

and not the words of one who kneels.

The record shows I took the blows

and did it my way.

But when I began reading about adult children of alcoholics, I learned how many of us were raised to be masters of not only our own fate but also the fate of the rest of our families. For example, I somehow always knew as a child that I was responsible for making sure that Christmas was a happy time of year, especially for my parents, neither of whom growing up had had happy holidays. I took that sense of responsibility for making others happy with me when I left home and started my own families, so that for seventy years, my Christmases were never as merry as I thought they should be, and it was my fault.

This burden of responsibility became even more oppressive after my daughter died on December 23, 1988. All parents feel guilt when their child dies, but my background as a child of alcoholism magnified it. I’ve written in these blogs several times about feeling my body chemistry change after Thanksgiving and the weight of the next weeks grow heavier and heavier.

Perhaps because of my physical diminishments, however, I’m finding that I have no choice but realize my increasing powerlessness in all facets of life. As my mother said to me when she was about the age I am now, “I used to think life was a case of mind over matter; now I find that what I mind doesn’t matter.”

Yet when I’ve been able to admit my powerlessness, I’ve experienced a wonderful sense of freedom. I can say “no” to causes and activities in which I used to feel I ought to participate, but that I had neither the skills nor the real interest in doing. The last few Thanksgivings, hosting twenty people all younger than I, I finally started putting some of them to work.

And this November I asked myself if my body chemistry was about to change, or was I just opening the same dog-eared horror story of how my daughter died. Laurie loved Christmas. She certainly never wanted me moping about or yelling at motorists on the highway. What would happen, I wondered, if I closed this book and took each day for what it was (or wasn’t).

After the holidays, I’m now trying to view the rest of the year not as something to master, but as something to accept. I’ve got a long way to go. You don’t unlearn something you’ve been doing for 70 years in five years. But when I can let go of this idea that the world depends upon me to keep it turning, I can see that everything I have—my health, my family— everything I am—including being a grieving parent— is gift.

Yes, I shed some tears on December 23rd. I also had a wonderful holiday season. I hope you did, too.

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Just one reason my Christmas was merry.

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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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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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