Up the Hill

Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem

“I lift up my eyes to the hills…”—Psalm 121:1


Many popular travel books describe the joy of climbing mountains. I’ve done a little of that, but for the most part, I prefer hills. Walking up a hill requires less physical effort, so I’m more aware of the view and less aware of how much my legs hurt or where to put my feet or that I’m afraid of heights. The scenery tends to be more familiar than from a mountain top, yet at the same time, as I climb a little higher, I get a different perspective, see the familiar in a new way.


Ten years old, I run from my house on the side of Bridge Street hill up to Main Street. Cresting the hill is like opening the door to a huge and wonderful world. Depending on the time of day or the time of year, I can go left down to Vaughn’s Pharmacy and have a root beer, or continue to Pride’s Market for a candy bar. I can go right to the movie theater and watch Hopalong Cassidy, or keep going to grade school. I can go straight across the street to church, or cut around the church to the ball field. Any direction will get me to one of my friends’ houses.

Food, education, God, sports, and friendship—values I still prize— are all just up the hill.


For four summers in high school, I walk up the hill to meet Willy and Scott. We amble down Main Street, past the boat yard and then up Pleasant Street hill to go to work in Bornheimer’s Market Garden, where I grow four inches, turn as brown as a walnut, and broaden my education far beyond what I learn in school. I gain knowledge of dirty jokes, what putdowns are okay and which aren’t (no mothers!), and, during lunch hour, how to improve my jump shot. I also unearth the joy of being out of doors, the self-confidence that comes from being in good physical condition, and the satisfaction of finishing a difficult job. I plant plans for my future and cultivate friendships that will continue into that future.

Oh, and I also learn to like eating vegetables.


Much of what I know about the up and down nature of love and lust and loneliness comes from walking hills. Going to and from my high school girl friend’s house means walking up and down Willow Street Hill. At first, I feel as if I’m floating instead of walking, until the afternoon Susan and I break up, and life becomes for a time all downhill. I follow the same path in 1972, when my wife, my two-year-old daughter, and I move into a brand-new house at the top of Main Street in Ellsworth, Maine. At first, the house represents our chance to build a future together as a family. Then, as the cellar walls crack and wind blows around the windows, our neighbors party loudly into the night, and the lawn turns brown in the summer, I realize the cracks and the leaks in my marriage, how often we fight into the night, and how love can wither. Going up the hill to my house becomes more and more difficult.

But when, remarried, I return to my home town to buy what was for fifty years my grandparents’ house just around the corner from “The Meeting House on the Hill,” I rekindle the joy and wonder I used to experience when I was a kid going up hills. I finally learn what it means to love someone and be loved in return.

I will need that love in the coming years, as my life becomes an uphill struggle with the deaths of my father, my grandmother, and my daughter, all within four years of one other.


In the old city of Jerusalem, I stumble up the Via Dolorosa, traditionally the street where Jesus was forced to carry his cross to his crucifixion, following Franciscan Brothers on their Friday “Walk of Devotion” to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It’s hot and the narrow street is steep and crowded and everyone seems to be yelling at me to buy a sheepskin or an icon or a plastic model Israeli airplane. Suddenly, in my mind it’s December, and I’m walking alone from the Ronald McDonald House to the Eastern Maine Medical Center where my eighteen-year-old daughter lies dying of cancer—up an icy hill past lonely gray houses with mansard roofs and an obscene spray painting on the side of an abandoned brick building, which in two years will become the setting for a Stephen King movie.

A hill in Jerusalem, a hill in Bangor, Maine: both physically and psychologically difficult, surrealistic, full of meaning that I won’t grasp for years, and yet which will mark me, turn me into the person I am today.


Almost twenty years later, Mary Lee and I walk St. Cuthbert’s Way, from Melrose, Scotland to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the east coast of England. We spend the summer preparing for our sixty-two-mile pilgrimage: we read books on St. Cuthbert, we walk from four to ten miles a day, we increase L.L. Bean’s profits for the year. What we don’t plan for are the hills. Funny, they didn’t look that steep on any of the YouTube videos we watched. At some point, laboring up Wideopen Hill, gasping for breath, I realize that while the hills may not be any steeper than many I’ve climbed in my life, I and my lungs, scarred from years of smoking, are older. I see in the low clouds rolling over the heather, perhaps for the first time, my mortality.


These days, any time I want to be reminded of mortality, I have only to walk up Bridge Street Hill past my old house. By the time I get to Main Street, my lungs are burning and my legs feel like anchors. Most of the time, growing up, I never even thought of Bridge Street as a hill. Still, as the hills in my life—both emotional and physical—keep getting steeper, it helps to think of them as part of a life-long pilgrimage, seeing some of the same views, the same people, but from a little higher perspective, while at the same time looking back to see wrong turns I’ve taken, and also times when I might have taken a wrong path toward disaster, but didn’t.

These hills also make me curious to see what kind of world will open for me when I crest that last one.

Image 1
Along St. Cuthbert’s Way

# #


Companions on the Road

On our way to Israel, 1997


God bless each of us as we travel on.

In our time of need

May we find a table spread in the wilderness

And companions on the road.

  • — Iona Abbey Worship Book


When I first began reading about pilgrims and pilgrimages, I formed an image of a solitary figure, staff in hand, striding over the landscape. And indeed, many authors that I’ve read on pilgrimage seem to have wended their ways by themselves.

I, however, have no desire to go on any kind of pilgrimage alone.

I recall when Mary Lee, my companion for the last thirty-three years’ worth of pilgrimages, and I had stopped to rest along our walking pilgrimage of St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose, Scotland to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the east coast of England, and a woman passed us going the same way. Head down, so that all I could see at first were the red tints in her hair, she was engrossed in a map encased in plastic hanging from a lanyard around her neck. A compass attached to a mirror dangled from another lanyard around her neck, and a GPS hung from her belt. She appeared startled, even frightened, to come upon us. She said her partner was hiking toward us from the town of Fenwick and that she hoped they would soon pass each other as he walked to Wooler behind us to pick up their car, which she’d left for him.

“This way we don’t have to wait and pay for public transportation to get back to our car,” she said.

“That sounds like a clever idea,” I said.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought the woman and her partner weren’t being clever at all. The woman was obviously nervous about getting lost. I doubt if she saw much of the beautiful landscape around her. Several times a day either Mary Lee or I would say, “Now, do we go this way?” or “Hold up. I think it’s this way.” We were continually pointing out to one another a view or a strange bird or a gnarled tree the other had missed.

While we passed much of our time in silence, we also reminisced, made up stories, and sang. After several months of dealing with my mother’s death and her father’s moving into assisted living, we got a chance to debrief, restoring and building a deeper relationship, and I wonder if not only the trip itself but also preparing for it and talking about it afterward was part of the “holiness” one associates with pilgrimage.

It was also fun watching Mary Lee climbing over those stiles in a hiking skirt.


I think of other companions on our pilgrimages, who have sustained us and whom we have sustained.

There was Paul, a young curate with a goatee, at Saint George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem. When Mary Lee and I, jet-lagged and overwhelmed by the strange sights, sounds, and smells of an alien culture, arrived to stay in the guest house, he invited us to go into the old city of Jerusalem with him, guiding us through the labyrinthine streets, recommending places to eat, and introducing us to local shopkeepers.

Paul and Mary Lee

There were Dick and Judith Graham from Indiana, whom we met at Mrs. Jenkins’ Bed and Breakfast in Cambridge, England, and who invited us to share the day with them and their rented car. In the morning, we toured Cambridge, and in the afternoon, drove out to the ash-gray ruins of a twelfth-century castle at Saffron-Walden, after which we’d walked an outdoor labyrinth that according to the guidebook measured exactly 5280 feet, none of which Mary Lee and I would ever have seen without them. After Judith flew back to Indiana, we tried to return the favor by making Dick our constant companion during a three-week Elizabethan Studies program, introducing him to Daddy’s Sauce for his scrambled eggs, and taking him with us punting on the Cam and searching the pubs of Cambridge for the perfect pint.

Dick punting us down (up?) the Cam.

Both times Mary Lee and I stayed on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, we stayed at Duncraig Guest House, where we befriended and were befriended by pastors, rectors, poets, visual artists, and two delightful spinster sisters. Mary Lee learned about Christian exorcism, I learned about puffins, and everyone else learned about Maine.


But if the companions I’ve met on the various roads through Israel, Scotland, and England have been helpful, the companions I’ve met on my pilgrimage through the grief and grace of losing a child have been essential.

Like Mary Lee on St. Cuthbert’s Way, Paul in Jerusalem, or the Grahams in Saffron-Waldon, my companions in groups such as Compassionate Friends, the Center for Grieving Children, or my Twelve-Step program give me another set of eyes to help me see the support available or the beauty and love I might have missed because, like the woman we met between Wooler and Fenwick engrossed in her maps, I have my head down, absorbed in my grief, nervous and fearful about the path I’ve found myself on.

I need someone like Paul, who knows the territory, knows how to negotiate the dark, twisted passages my mind can take me, shows me how to get sustenance, introduces me to others who can also help. Instead of puffins, these companions introduce me to writers, speakers, who broaden my awareness, and I, hopefully, do the same for them, whether it be recommending Daddy’s Sauce or a writer I especially admire.


One such writer is Christopher Wiman, author of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. “I never feel closer to God than when I’m in conversation with someone about God,” he says, reminding me that companions are essential on any kind of spiritual journey.

Mary Lee and I have just returned from a five-day silent retreat, where we spent much of our time sitting in contemplative prayer with eight other companions. Sitting together in contemplation, we literally feed not only off each other’s silence but also off God’s.

This feeling of being fed makes sense, because the word “companion” comes from the Latin, meaning “one with whom I break bread.” I’m writing the first draft of this blog in a local coffee shop, sitting across the table from Mary Lee, who is trying to finish both her half of our muffin and the book she’s supposed to read for her upcoming book group. I don’t think we’ve spoken in the last hour. And yet for that hour she’s supported me, fed me, in ways that even a Morning Glory muffin cannot do.

There was a time in my life when I thought that being a real man meant being strong, silent, and self-sufficient. My dream was to live by myself and my black lab on an island off the coast of Maine.

Thank God, not all dreams come true.

I’m more of a cat person, anyway.

White Mountains, 2016

# #

Sounds of Silence


“Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”—Thomas Keating.

When I was growing up, my father moon-lighted as the sexton for our church, and my first paying job was to go there on Saturday morning, pick up last week’s bulletins from the pews in the sanctuary and set chairs up in the Sunday school classrooms. I loved the empty church, especially the sanctuary. I loved the way colored dust floated in the light through the stained-glass windows. I loved the smell of candlewax, the soft carpet under my feet, and above all, the palpable silence that enfolded me.

I’ve been in love with silence ever since.


“…but the Lord was not in the wind… the Lord was not in the earthquake… the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”—1 Kings 19:11-12.

I measure the worth of my pilgrimages, retreats, and other trips by the amount of silence I experience. I recall with joy the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, where sound seems muffled in ethereal light, and the Arizona desert, as the rising sun over saw-toothed mountains silently splashes light over prickly pear, cholla, barrel, and saguaro cacti.

Conversely, my stomach still reels when I remember the old city of Jerusalem: the noisy labyrinth of streets and alley-ways, strange chants from Armenian priests in black hoods at Saint James’ Cathedral, Orthodox Jews bobbing in front of the Western Wall, torrents of Muslims returning from Temple Mount after Friday prayers. Gawking spectators, money changers, tasteless displays of religiosity. And everywhere, voices yelling at me to buy, buy, buy.


“Silence like a cancer grows.”—Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence.”

I’m sorry, Paul, you blew it with that line. Don’t get me wrong, usually, I like your stuff, like especially that in your seventies (like me), you’re still writing new material, still performing. It’s noise, however, that’s the cancer of our culture, and it’s gotten worse since you wrote that song. I can’t buy groceries, go to the dentist or the doctor, wait on hold, without being assaulted by the blasting or the bland. (Who of us growing in the 50s and 60s would have thought that the music that so shocked our parents would be today’s shopping center Muzak?”)


“… there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.”—Thomas Merton

If you want to talk cancer, during the months of November and December of 1988, I sat by my eighteen-year-old daughter’s bedside at the Eastern Maine Medical Center, watching Laurie die of the disease, and asking “Why?’ Why weren’t any of the treatments working? Why couldn’t the doctors and nurses keep her more comfortable? Why did she become sick in the first place? Why was she dying?

After one particularly bad day—Dr. Brooks had explained to Laurie that her cancer had spread into her pelvis, the new patient next door kept screaming at everyone to “Fuck off!” Laurie had started vomiting green bile, and my ex-wife wanted me to complain about one of the nurses—I left Laurie’s room about 4:00 p.m. to return to the Ronald McDonald House. I was so upset that I didn’t realize that the elevator had dropped me off at the second floor and not the lobby. Lost in thought, I walked down a hall until I found myself standing in front of a door that said “Chapel.” I turned the doorknob and entered.

The first thing I noticed was how quiet the room was. Even in Laurie’s single room at the end of the hall, there was always a steady undercurrent of noise from machines or voices in the hall or near-by TV sets. Here, there was only the sound of my heart beating to the question, “Why?”

From somewhere in the ceiling fresh air cooled my face. I felt my body loosen. The silence seemed to keep drawing first my angry words and then all of me into its embrace.

Out of the stillness I heard the words, “Don’t ask why, just ask for help.” These words might have saved my life.


…you, congregation

of one

are here to listen

not to sing.

Kneel in the back pew,

make no sound,

let the candles


—Patricia McKernon Runkle: “When you meet Someone in Grief”

After Laurie died, I received all kinds of advice—Be patient… It’s God’s will… You’ll get over it… I know just how you feel because my uncle/cousin/grandmother/dog died…Suck it up!…—none of which was helpful, and nearly all of which pissed me off. It wasn’t until I started trying to counsel other grieving parents that I realized how difficult it is to find words of support. That was when I realized the only thing that had helped me was someone compassionate enough to simply sit with me in silence. I try now to do the same.


“Silence is helpful, but you don’t need it to fine stillness.”—Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks.

What I’m really after, of course, is interior silence, what my twelve-step program calls “serenity,” and Eckhart Tolle calls “Stillness.” And, say he and others, one can have that stillness even in the midst of the noise that harasses us almost every minute o every day. I read an account once by a writer who took a Buddhist monk to a movie. Apparently the movie was louder and more violent than the writer had expected. He turned to the monk to see if he wanted to leave and saw in meditation, a half-smile on his face. Later the monk thanked the writer for giving him two hours of uninterrupted meditation time.


You have called me into this silence to be grateful for what silence I have and to use it by desiring more.”—Thomas Merton

But I’m not a monk, Buddhist or otherwise. Especially as I enter into this holiday season—not only noisy in the good ways that being with family can be (Mary Lee and I have just had twenty people for Thanksgiving), but also deafening in its crass materialistic ravings, all complicated by the fact that this is the time of year I spent by my dying daughter’s bedside so that every day from now until December 23 will be an anniversary of some sorrow—I need to set aside places and times of silence, where I can relish and nurture the memory of those silent retreats and pilgrimages, draw from them, drink from them as if they were oases in the desert.


“The rest is silence.”—Hamlet

This morning, Mary Lee and I went for a quick walk before breakfast. Under a motionless November sky, the 20° air was still. An occasional oak leaf fluttered noiselessly to the ground. Trees raised their bare branches to the sky, as if in silent prayer. We walked without talking, something we do more and more these days, resting in what we have created between us over the past thirty-three years: a silence and a stillness too deep for words.

# #


Dingle, Ireland - 053


The other day, I was trying to consolidate photos on my computer (Does anyone besides me miss the old photograph albums?), when I found around a hundred pictures from August of 2009 when Mary Lee and I participated in a “Stonecoast in Ireland” program. Looking at the slideshow I created (Okay, computers have their advantages) I realized I’ve never thought of my week in Dingle on the southwest coast of Ireland as a pilgrimage.

At the same time, it wasn’t a vacation.

I decided the best word to describe it would be an “edu-cation.”

Now there were certainly elements of a vacation. Our program leaders, Ted and Annie Deppe, (both fine poets, teachers, and really cool people—check out their work), had planned each day:  mornings devoted to each participant’s teaching a class on a writer we admired, critiquing the essays, fiction, and poetry we’d submitted (I’d never been in a mixed genre workshop before), and listening to guest lecturers; afternoons and evenings eating in Dingle’s fine restaurants and listening to Irish jigs and reels in the pubs, and being chauffeured and guided around southwestern Ireland in style.

Dingle is a town geared for those on vacation. In addition to all the places to eat and drink, there are gift shops, a lovely book store (where we did a reading one night), woolen shops, and an aquarium. Walking the streets, I heard German, British, Italian, French, and Japanese, as well as American accents. The week I was there, Dingle harbor was full of yachts for some regatta. Tour boats took passengers out to catch a glimpse of “Fungi,” a beloved dolphin and tourist attraction since the 1980’s. The Coastline Motel, where we stayed and had our classes was comfortable and the breakfasts were scrumptious.

On the other hand, pilgrimages are supposed to be difficult, and traveling to Ireland was more difficult than any pilgrimage I’ve been on. When Mary Lee and I put together our trip, we wanted some retreat time, so we booked our first night in Ireland a day early in Glenstal Abbey outside of Limerick. Due to thunderstorms and something called “pilot time,” however, we spent the first night of our trip in Saugus, Massachusetts. (To help me write this blog, I put on the Skyteam tee-shirt I still have from Delta’s overnight bag.) On the day we’d planned to be in silence and slow time at Glenstal Abbey, we spent thirteen hours in Kennedy Airport in New York City, trying to find an internet connection so that I could explain to the Brothers why we weren’t there (They were very nice and didn’t charge us), running back and forth from one end of the terminal to the other because the plane to Shannon Airport kept changing gates, and listening to people screaming at ticket agents in eighty-seven different languages. (If someday for my sins I go to Hell, I expect it will be a lot like Kennedy Airport.)

The other challenging trip was to Great Blasket Island, three miles off Ireland’s western coast. Because of weather conditions, we didn’t know when we were going, and the trip we did make came at the last minute, when the captain of our tour boat saw “a window of opportunity.” (Which, I found out later, meant that the ocean swells had dropped from twenty feet to six to ten feet.) In a steady rain, we boarded the boat, and chugged to the island, where we transferred to motorized rubber rafts to go ashore.

Dingle, Ireland - 055

Once on the island, I entered the same kind of liminal space I’ve talked before about in these blogs on pilgrimage. Empty windows of stone houses peered at me from the furze and heather growing on peat bogs. Wild sheep and donkeys grazed and rabbits scampered across foot paths. The island had been abandoned since 1953. Before then, it had been inhabited since the 16th century, and by the early 1700s, there had been as many as 170 people fishing and farming there. The reason Ted and Annie included this trip in the itinerary was because in the 1920s and 30s, Great Blasket Island was known for its writers, publishing in the native Irish language about life on the edge of European civilization. But after that, the population kept declining until there was no one left.

By the time we disembarked from our rubber rafts, the rain was coming down hard. Good Mainers that we are, Mary Lee and I had our L.L. Bean raingear and waterproof hiking boots, so we took off for the northern part of the island, past the houses and the sheep, splashing through mud puddles and a bog that seemed to be breathing.

My wife was in heaven. In her other life (our term for the years before we met), she’d owned a donkey, and she thinks of the donkey as her spirit animal. She immediately gravitated to those descendants of the work animals Islanders used instead of horses.

Dingle, Ireland - 060

I was more interested in the views of the water and the fifteen seals bobbing up and down like kids waiting for the movie theater to open, and the melancholic sense of standing on the soggy, uneven ground between life—Mary Lee petting the donkeys, the seals below me, the seabirds circling overhead—and death, symbolized by the collapsed stone houses.

Great Blasket was not a “spiritual” destination as such. Although I gather monks lived here in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were no ruins of monasteries, not even a cemetery (when someone died, they were taken to the mainland for burial). Unlike most of my pilgrimages, there was nobody in particular I had made this journey to honor.

Still, as far as I’m concerned, the day was a spiritual experience.

Which raises the old question: what does “spiritual” mean? Writers on pilgrimage often refer to “the call to pilgrimage,” a longing to reach a destination, one connected with a destination within yourself, one that ties you to the transcendent. One of the reasons I wanted to participate in “Stonecoast in Ireland,” was that I yearned for my writing to be published, and fulfill a vow I’d made to my daughter Laurie after she died to become a writer as a way to honor her memory. (And the essay I took with me to Ireland did eventually become published as part of my novel Requiem in Stones.)

I was also paying homage to writers I admire and want to emulate. I taught a class on Frank McCourt, one of my literary heroes, both because he was a former high school English teacher and because he didn’t publish his first book, Angela’s Ashes, until he was in his late sixties. (Which as far as I’m concerned is a triumph of the human spirit.)

So while the call to make this trip probably wasn’t “spiritual” in the sense of my trying to become closer to God, it wasn’t simply to get away, either. My edu-cation to Dingle became an interior journey to creative parts of myself I didn’t know were there. I began writing poetry. I developed a love of Irish music. I made friendships that continue to this day.

Edu-cations show me how blurred the line between pilgrimage and vacation can be. Which reveals how blurred the line between spiritual and secular can be.

More and more, I’m coming to believe that no matter how they begin, my real pilgrimages are the journeys I make through the landscapes—the bogs and ocean views, the empty houses and spirit animals, the loud conflicts and lilting music (not to mention through the digressions that keep pulling me off track)—of myself.

Dingle, Ireland - 056

# #

On (Being) Bridges


I grew up in a house on Bridge Street. As a child, I probably got spanked more for going down to the concrete bridge at the foot of the hill than for anything else. But in spite of my mother’s hairbrush, I couldn’t not go there. I’d meander halfway across the bridge and look over the railing on one side to the Royal River, coming down from where I didn’t know, cascading over a waterfall, and running under me; then cross to the other side of the bridge and gaze at the water flowing over rocks and disappearing around a bend to someplace else I couldn’t imagine.

Later in high school, I was still standing on the bridge, watching the river rush beneath me, but now picturing it gliding past the boat yard, into Casco Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, and on to exotic places where I wanted to go.

(Royal River, Yarmouth, Maine)

I continue to love bridges, whether it’s one of the small footbridges on the trails of the Topsham-Brunswick Land Trust behind our house, a suspension bridge over the River Tweed in Scotland, or the world’s longest elevated pedestrian bridge, 1.28 miles long and 212 feet above the Hudson River from Highland to Poughkeepsie, New York. My photograph album is full of pictures of bridges from St. Cuthbert’s Way, retreat houses from Massachusetts to California to Canada, and from around Maine.

(Along St. Cuthbert’s Way, England)

There’s no feeling quite like being on a bridge. Taking your first step on to a bridge, you know you’ve left firm ground. Your footing is just a bit unstable. Some bridges are dizzying. I’m always a little uncomfortable (how uncomfortable depends on the height of the bridge) but at the same time excited. Even on the smallest bridge in the thickest woods, the view is wider, and, of course, on a bridge like the Hudson River Pedestrian Bridge, the panorama is stunning. My senses are keener, my mind more awake, probably because I almost always pause when I’m on a bridge, sometimes to admire the view, sometimes to consider where I’ve been and where I’m going.

(View from the Highland to Poughkeepsie Bridge)

Bridges are great examples of being in liminal space. I’ve written before about the importance of liminal space in my life— http://richardwile.com/2017/01/betwixt-and-between/ —those times when I’ve been, as it were, on a bridge between one job and another, one marriage and another, and, the most important bridge of all, the nine months between my daughter Laurie’s diagnosis of cancer and her death—probably the most dizzying, unstable time in my life. And also, probably the most important for making me the person I am now.

(St. Cuthbert’s Way Again. This time in Scotland…I think)

Today, however, I’m thinking of people as bridges: those people who have helped me cross from one stage of life to another. Many were teachers and coaches. Often they made me uncomfortable (my eighth-grade teacher and coach Mr. Beal scared the hell out of me) because they pushed me harder than I wanted to be pushed. The old ground on which I’d been walking suddenly wasn’t there, and I was shaky, sometimes dizzy. (I remember my head swimming when Professor Wence handed me back my first college English essay, dripping in red ink and marked “Content: C- /Grammar: D- /Spelling: F.”) But they always expanded my view, woke me up to new worlds, whether it was Mr. Hanson in high school revealing that there was more than one political party in this country besides the Republicans, or Professor Bogarad in grad school showing me the world of Milton’s Paradise Lost, or Mike Steinberg twenty years ago introducing me to something called creative nonfiction.

(Footbridge, Mabou, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia)

It’s probably because of my admiration for these bridge people that for over fifty years, I’ve been, in one form or another, a teacher, trying to be that a bridge between my students and a larger world, be it an adolescent’s first sight of Shakespeare’s genius or the world of the past my retirees want to reopen and pass on for their children and grandchildren. To be able to see the eyes of a student of any age light up as they say, “Hey, I’ve never seen that before! This is cool!” is an experience like no other.

(Railroad Bridge between Auburn and Lewiston, Maine

I’m still looking for people to serve as bridges to new worlds. Not surprising, I suppose, is that the new world I’m most interested in these days is the spiritual one—what some in my age group would call the next world. I have no idea what this next world looks like, any more, I suppose than at five years old, I knew where the Royal River went. But I’m relying on people to give me at least a glimpse of it: people like Franciscan writer Richard Rohr (https://cac.org/richard-rohr/richard-rohr-ofm/);  Thomas Merton (http://merton.org/chrono.aspx ); the Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, the Episcopal monastery in Massachusetts (https://www.ssje.org/);  my rectors, Jonathan, Dan, and Carolyn; and the Northeast Guild for Spiritual Formation, an interfaith contemplative organization (http://www.northeastguild.org/).

(And yes, I’m trying to be a bridge here. Check these websites out.)

(Somewhere in Maine. I’ve forgotten Where.)

When I was living on Mount Desert Island, one of my favorite things to do besides teaching, was to walk the 45 miles of carriage roads that John D. Rockefeller Jr. built between 1913 and 1940. I still go back now and then to walk them again. Walking or biking those roads, you can see sixteen bridges, each one unique and beautiful. (I think I’ve seen them all.) The view of woods and water and rocky cliffs from each is spectacular, but so are the bridges themselves—a reminder of the unique beauty of serving as a bridge for others to cross.

(One of J. D.’s Carriage Road Bridges)

# #

Here Comes the Judge!


Pilgrimages are about traveling light, leaving old patterns of behavior behind, opening yourself to new gifts. And I do pretty well. Except for the Judge. No matter where I go, I just can’t seem to leave the bastard behind.

I’m in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, or Salisbury Cathedral in England, or Iona Abbey in Scotland, magnificent symbols of the holy, created by a confluence of spirit, sweat, intellect, and prayer, and all I’m aware of are the tourists around me following guides like schools of mackerel. Instead of paying attention to God, I’m listening to this voice: Aren’t you glad you’re not one of them?

Or I’m on retreat, in search of silence and serenity, watching the Brothers at whatever monastery I happen to be at, envious of how much more at peace they seem to be than I am, and I hear, Why can’t you be that centered? Maybe if you shaved your head the way the monk over there has, you’ll achieve union with God.

Or I’m hiking St. Cuthbert’s Way or climbing a mountain in New Hampshire, trying to become one with nature, and I hear someone behind me on the trail. I glance over my shoulder and see a guy who looks like he’s been carved from the side of this mountain. He’s catching up with you, the Judge says. You have to go faster! I try to pick up my pace. I don’t to get off the trail until I absolutely have to. Then, as the guy strides by me, the voice behind my right ear, soft but certain, slow and confident—a lot like Clint Eastwood’s— says, Why can’t you look like that guy?

I’ve certainly tried. Over the years, depending on whom I’ve wanted or not wanted to be, I’ve gone on diets; I’ve changed haircuts, grown and cut off sideburns, goatees, shaped beards, and Grizzly Adams beards; I’ve taken up, and given up, cigarettes, pipes, cigars, snuff, scotch, gin, bourbon, hand-crafted beers, jogging, weight-lifting, several religions, a number of meditation techniques, Tai Chi and Qigong, yoga, scraping my tongue, neti pots, and hanging upside down.

The Judge remains unimpressed.


Besides pilgrimages and retreats, he is most likely to show up when I’m in social situations, such as class reunions, coffee hour at church, and parties. At my side, he leans in, pointing up to some people in envy, pointing down to others in disdain or pity, as if he and I were on some kind of ladder.

He was a powerful presence in the times when my life most seemed in chaos. During my first two years of college, when I had no idea of who I was or where I was going, the Judge sat with me in the back of the college den, disdaining the frat boys and sorority gals for being conformists, while telling me not to go back to my dorm because it was filled with losers. And after my daughter died of cancer, the judge convicted me of murder, sentenced me to a life of guilt because I’d caused Laurie’s death, either because I’d left her mother for another woman, or because I hadn’t left her mother soon enough.

I suspect the Judge was appointed by my alcoholic family, where “What will the neighbors think?” was the household mantra. If you appear to be in control, you are.  At the same time, judging is a way to keep people and situations at a distance. If I’m judging people, I’m not vulnerable to what they may say or do (another way to be in control). I can barricade myself behind the judge’s bench above the rest of the court, distant, respected, sarcastically wielding my gavel.

Never mind that the Judge has often kept me from being fully present to people, to the beauty of the world around me, to joy.


Still, if you go on enough pilgrimages, something is bound to rub off. A few weeks ago, when Mary Lee and I were traveling on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, the Judge pointed to the boney bicyclists pushing themselves up and down the rugged hills, and told me that when I got home I needed to lose 10 pounds (15 would be better). You ought to get one of those racing bikes, he said, or start walking ten miles a day.

For some reason—I’d like to think it was the grace that can come on a pilgrimage—instead of reacting immediately, I thought, well, the Judge usually shows up when I’m self-conscious or anxious about something. What’s been going on in my life lately? Alright, I’ve been writing about mortality in one way or another all year. Since April, I’ve seen three people my age die, and several more go into the hospital for major surgery. Could it be that I’m apprehensive about my own death, and I think that if I could just look like those healthy bicyclists, I might not die, at least not yet, and well, maybe I ought to get my neti pot out again…

And suddenly, the idea that I could diet my way to eternal life was funny. I thought of the old Rowan and Martin television show, Laugh In, and Sammy Davis, Jr., dressed in a long white wig and black robes, swinging his arms and strutting like a turkey, crying, “Here comes the judge! Here comes the judge! Here comes the judge!” (If you want to see for yourself, check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cODhv5MFZkA)

Later that afternoon, as Mary Lee and I walked a nice, level trail along the Cape Breton shore, instead of the other mantras I sometimes use when I walk, I tried that one, synchronized with my breathing: (breathe in) “Here comes, (breathe out)… the Judge.” “Here comes … the Judge.” I might even have strutted a little.

I didn’t hear much from him the rest of the trip.


# #

Rooting Around


“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”

—Simone Weil


By the shore of the Minas Basin, Nova Scotia I’m walking a classic, seven-circuit labyrinth. In Tangled Garden, outside of Grand Pre, I circle through lavender, mint, thyme, blue stem, heather, rosemary, ferns, and other herbs I don’t recognize. Each breath I take is scented. Monarch butterflies flitter between plants.

I’m starting to appreciate walking labyrinths, learning to recognize their pattern in my daily life. The spiral, mystics say, is sacred. Their geometry (sometimes called the Fibonacci sequence) recurs at every scale of existence, from the arrangement of DNA to the coils of the brain to fingerprints to plants to the formation of stars in their nebulae. Walking a labyrinth is fraught with twists and turns, as is life.

As has been the morning.

Leaving Halifax, I thought Mary Lee and I would stop to see my great-grandfather’s grave on our way to Wolfville. I knew that Enoch Wile’s stone was in the East Gore Cemetery. I knew where East Gore was. I knew what the cemetery looked like. I knew how to get there. But apparently, I missed a turnoff, and labyrinth-like, we drove up to Maitlin on the Bay of Fundy, circled over to Noel, and back down again through West Gore, and then Gore, and finally to East Gore, which consisted of a meeting hall, a grain silo, and a former church now serving as a food pantry. Figuring a church would be in close proximity to a graveyard, I stopped the car and walked around the building, seeing nothing. I got back in the car and started driving in circles past the occasional farm and one hell of a lot of trees. Eventually, I came to a dirt road marked “Settlement” which I remembered seeing when I stopped at the church. This must be the other end, I thought, so I took it, thinking maybe an old cemetery would be on an old road. The road narrowed and curved and narrowed some more, then dipped down over a bridge marked “Road Floods” before coming out back at the church. Still no cemetery.

“Now where?” I asked my wife. As I looked to her for advice, I saw over her shoulder, across the road and up a hill, an arched gate reading “East Gore Cemetery.” We had passed it three times without noticing.


In the center of the labyrinth of Tangled Garden is a large upright circle of woven herbs, through which I gaze across the historic dyke lands of Grand Pre to the Minas Basin, which, at low tide, looks like an expanse of desert. In 1755, this area was the site of the British expulsion of French Catholic Acadians who refused to swear loyalty to England. Families were broken up. People were pulled from their roots.

I think of finally finding the center of my labyrinthian drive this morning, standing in front of Enoch Wile’s gravestone, discovering roots I never knew I had.


As I wrote in the last blog, one of the reasons for coming to Nova Scotia was to try to find out more about my Grandfather Lyman Wile, whom no one in my family ever talked about because my grandmother left him when my father was four years old. With the help of my sister, who’s become interested in genealogy, I learned that Lyman’s father was Enoch, and that Lyman had fifteen brothers and sisters. I found that south central Nova Scotia is filled with Wiles: there’s a Wileville, a Wile Settlement, a Wile Lake, and several Wile roads. I discovered yesterday in Halifax that all of these Wiles go back to one Johann Frederich Weil from Germany, who was one of several thousand “Foreign Protestants,” brought over by the British (whose King, George II, had grown up in Germany) in 1750 to settle Nova Scotia, and to take the place of the Acadians they were deporting.

My mind goes back to Enoch’s grave, which looks out past the church steeple and the grain silo toward the rolling, forested hills of East Gore, and I realize that after my grandmother had left Lyman Wile, she put her son, my father—who’d been named for Lyman’s brother who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918-19—into what was called “a Home for Wayward Boys” for eight years. Dad, then, grew up without any sense of what I’ve discovered was a huge family, and I find myself understanding for the first time some of his character traits that used to drive me foolish: his negativity, his gluttony, his alcoholism. Dr. Sharon Deloz Parks writes that people typically have two major support sources in their early lives—what she calls “threshold people,” who help us cross into another stage of life, and “hospitable spaces,” that provide a sense of home. My father, as far as I can tell, had neither. He was, in the words of theologian Denise Starkey, “spiritually homeless,” which, she notes, is often connected with addiction.

I think of how important my family has been to me, even though I’ve often tried to ignore them. I’ve spent a lot of time, especially since starting to attend Al Anon meetings, aware of how growing up in an alcoholic family has scarred me, but I realize that at some level I’ve always known my family would be there if I needed them. After I told my first wife I was moving out of our house, the first thing I did was call my parents to ask if I could stay with them for a while. When Mary Lee traveled from Colorado to be with me, I knew we could stay with my parents until we found a place to live. And after my daughter died, it was buying my grandmother’s house in the town in which I’d grown up that provided an anchor in what felt like a tsunami of grief. I’ve always known where the center of my internal labyrinth was, even though it’s taken a long circular journey through what bell hooks calls the “geography of the heart” to get there.


Before leaving the labyrinth, I stop to take a picture of three monarch butterflies. Every year monarch butterflies from all over North American are driven by forces we still don’t understand to make a two-thousand-mile trip home to the Monarch Butterfly Reserve in Michoacan, some hundred miles north of Mexico City, spending the winter together, becoming so many that their collective weight bends the trees. Then they make their separate ways north again in the spring. Not only are butterflies metaphors of the power of family and the journey home, they are symbols of the cycle of life—growing from egg to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly—i.e. life, death, and rebirth.

I’m not sure I feel reborn, but finding the heritage that I never knew I had, feeling a closer connection with my father, has made me feel more rooted. More whole. Healed in some way.

As Mary Lee and I leave Tangled Garden for our B&B in Wolfville, I see the Minas Basin filling with water.


# #