Return to the Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In memory of Scott Dunham: 1943-2018

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Up the Hill

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Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Along St. Cuthbert’s Way

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Companions on the Road

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On our way to Israel, 1997

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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White Mountains, 2016

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Sounds of Silence

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“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.

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“…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.

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“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?”)

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“… 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.

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…you, congregation

of one

are here to listen

not to sing.

Kneel in the back pew,

make no sound,

let the candles

speak.

—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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.

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Edu-cations

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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.

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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.

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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.

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On (Being) Bridges

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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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.)

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(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.

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

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Here Comes the Judge!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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