Learning to Bend

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“Blessed are the hearts that bend; they shall never be broken.”

—Saint Francis de Sales

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I don’t feel 75. Seeing myself in the mirror every day, I’ve learned to ignore the lines and moles and turkey wattle so I can say to my reflection, “You don’t look 75.” But when I see myself in a photograph, bent over, my back as the Psalmist says, “like a warped bow,” I think, “Who the hell is that old fart?”

Still, I’m beginning to wonder if my bent back isn’t trying to teach me something.

Besides the fact that until I lost four inches I always liked being taller than most people, I’ve also always prided myself on not bending—that I strive for goals with single-minded determination (See https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2018/06/26/finish-line/). In high school, I spent a good 360 days a year with a basketball in my hands. While never a star, I did learn to overcome the dysplasia that would later result in bilateral hip replacement and a general lack of coordination enough so that my former 8th-grade basketball coach used me as an example of what hard work can accomplish.

As a high-school English teacher, I worked seven days a week creating lesson plans, correcting essays, organizing my classroom, and going to professional conferences. And when I left teaching to begin writing, I established a strict routine for writing at least five days a week, augmented by summer conferences. I returned to school at the age of 60 to get an MFA, and then continued with more summer conferences. I spent twenty years working on a novel, writing I can’t tell you how many drafts, changing it from a memoir to a novel (available on Amazon or from my website, http://richardwile.com).  Since then, I’ve maintained my writing schedule, publishing this blog without fail every two weeks for the past three years.

But there have been times when persistence and self-discipline haven’t paid off—have actually proved counter-productive. For years after the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie from cancer, I tried to treat my grief as another athletic opponent to be overcome by the will power that had served me so well in the past. I disdained my tears and shoved my anger down, refusing to bend in what I saw as submission to grief.

But the more I tried to bury my anger, the more it resurfaced as guilt, shame, and resentment. Recently, I learned that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That was me—shutting everyone out as I obsessed with somehow “winning the battle” with grief—and if I didn’t become insane, I certainly became irrational. Not until I surrendered my shame and my guilt and my anger—in other words, my ego— to what I now call the God-of-my-not-Understanding (See “https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/03/07/dont-ask-why-just-ask-for-help/), was I able not only to survive Laurie’s death, but to discover joy and love and, most of all, Grace.

The more I think about it, the more I question how well my rigid single-mindedness has actually served me. In going to reunions, talking with old classmates, I can see that those years I spent playing basketball kept my circle of friends small, kept me from knowing some really neat people. I see how the game burned me out, so that I never wanted to play basketball again (and seldom watch the sport anymore). And I see that one of the reasons I was so miserable in college was that I had no idea what to do with myself without the game. (Bridge and pool were poor substitutes.)

One of the major sources of my guilt after Laurie died was thinking of all those weekends I corrected papers and went to school to put up new bulletin boards when I could have been with my child, and I still regret not spending more time with her. Now I’m asking myself whether as Mary Lee and I grow older and our grandchildren grow up, I’ll regret having spent more time focused on the computer keyboard than on them.

I’m also wondering if I’ve been too hung up for too long on the idea that to bend means only to yield or to submit. Bend also means change, growth, bending towards something—such as the way plants bend toward sunlight—or someone—such as how I bend for my grandchildren or toward the alter at church.

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And I’m thinking I need to be more intentive about bending, being less rigid, growing instead of remaining inert.

I’m going to start with this blog. I’ve enjoyed the last three years of publishing it every two weeks, but I’m also feeling pressure to continue even when I’ve nothing to say. And as I’ve been writing today’s blog, more and more things have cropped up—an upcoming pilgrimage to Africa, work on an editing position I hold, trying to put some legal stuff in order—which has made making my self-imposed deadline difficult. I think of how I burned out on the basketball court, and I don’t want that to happen.

So I’m going to take a sabbatical. Prepare for Africa, let the experience teach me what it has to teach without worrying, “Can I get a blog out of this?” and then take some time to process not only the journey to Tanzania, but also my journey toward my eighties. I hope to work on some longer writing projects that have been kicking around in the musty, dusty corners of my mind.

But I’m also planning to resume this blog. I started it just after I’d published my novel, when I wanted to write something more immediate, more spontaneous. And it’s been a great help in getting me to see not only where I’ve been but where I’m going. It’s been part of my twelve-step work, which I’m nowhere near done with.  Through this blog, I’ve rekindled old friendships and made a number of new ones with people from all over the world.

But I feel I need to bend the topography a bit, “bend” both in the sense of yielding and in the sense of turning in a different direction, writing only when I have something to say, not because I have to say something,

Until then, to return to the Psalmist’s words, “peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers.”

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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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Food for the Journey

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Local market Selçuk, Turkey

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One of the joys of my various pilgrimages is remembering them: looking at the photographs, rereading journals, comparing notes with other people who’ve made the same journeys. I can always discover something I haven’t seen before. The other night, when Mary Lee and I were reminiscing about our 72-mile walking pilgrimage from Melrose, Scotland to the Island of Lindisfarne off the east coast of England, we found ourselves asking each other what foods we recalled. Remember when we got off the bus in Melrose, how hungry we were, and how good that ham and cheese toastie was? And that salmon in Dryburgh? Nothing was better that the lamb, though, in Jedburgh. Unless it was the scallops in Fenwick. And weren’t the chips always good, no matter where we were?

Which got me thinking that food has always been part of every pilgrimage I’ve ever been on: Brother Bernie’s blueberry pie the first time we went to what turned out to be our favorite retreat center; the falafel and shawarma, figs and dates in Israel; Scottish haigis (I actually like the stuff); ploughman’s lunches in England and once for breakfast, the largest kipper I’ve ever seen; Irish soda bread; New Mexican tamales; just about anything on the menu in San Francisco’s China Town; Turkish mezze platters; Nova Scotia seafood chowder.

Likewise, I often identify the stages of my life’s pilgrimages by the food I remember: the smell of the bread and rolls my mother baked every Saturday morning and the taste of butter melting on hot, yeasty dough; chicken fried steak and creamed sausage over biscuits when I worked for the Forest Service in Idaho; the pizza in Orono, Maine, where I went to college; pancakes soaked in Vermont maple syrup; baked beans and codfish cakes when I lived in Down East Maine; butterflied leg of lamb, new potatoes, and fresh corn on the cob with Mary Lee’s Wellesley Fudge Cake for dessert.

I’m not sure about the future, but based on my observation of the active octogenarians and nonagenarians I know, I expect I’ll eat a lot of oatmeal and ice cream.

Maybe because years of smoking have dulled my taste buds, or because I don’t cook, or because it’s just the way I see the world, food for me is seldom just food. For example, I think of food as romantic love. Yes, there is our traditional Valentine’s night out at a four-star restaurant, but thirty-two years ago, after Mary Lee and I stood on the rocks of Casco Bay with an Episcopal priest who blessed our civil marriage, the three of us went to the local pizza place, which is still where Mary Lee and I go on our anniversary. Even though we no longer live in town, we also try to stop there on the way home after being on a trip. Our love, one might say, is grounded in pizza.

When I had basketball practice in high school, my mother made the rest of the family wait to eat dinner until I got home. I really didn’t care if they waited for me and I think my father was pissed, but since then, I’ve read that one of the marks of successful, well-adjusted young people is that they eat dinner with their families—something that happens less and less in these days of individual TVs, computers, sports practices, and erratic work schedules. Food, then, helps bond the family unit.

Don’t most family celebrations revolve around food? Thanksgiving is the big one for us. Ever since Mary Lee and I were living in a small apartment, with next to no money, beginning our lives all over again at the age of forty, we hosted our families—adults sitting on couches with TV trays, children on the stairs, so that grandparents could sit at our tiny dining room table. (Not that we had a dining room.) We felt it important to make both sides of our families know they were part of our new lives. Now, as the oldest members of our families, we host not only Thanksgiving, but also often Christmas, Easter, and birthdays, as a way to stay connected to the next generations.

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How many photographs do you have of holiday meals?

Food is friendship. After my weekly Men’s Group meeting at our church, most of us go for coffee at a local bakery, where I have some kind of muffin, scone, or coffee cake, savoring the calories and the conversation. Every month or so, I join the ROMEOs (Retired Old Men Eating Out) from the high school class of 1961 at an area restaurant for lunch. Sometimes, we search out new places for German or Indian or Japanese food; other times we return to old standbys for fish & chips, burgers, and fried clams. But the kind and quality of the food is not the reason we’re often the first customers to arrive, and some of the last to leave.

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The ROMEOS (R.I.P. Scott)

When my non-church going friends ask me why I go to church every week and several times a day when I’m on retreat, I say I go to be fed. I don’t know what happens to that wafer and wine on Sunday, but I’ll take it. And do. Not to mention the refreshments at coffee hour, the pot luck suppers, picnics, and other meals our church serves.

During a brief flirtation with Buddhism, I attended six-hour sesshins, which, besides silent meditation, included walking meditation, talking meditation, and eating meditation. At the end of the day, we were served tea and a cookie. That cookie was the best tasting cookie I’ve ever eaten. A year or so later, after I’d decided I was a Christian and had stopped going to these sesshins, I discovered those same cookies in the grocery store. I brought them home and made a cup of tea. At my kitchen table, away the Zen community which had fed me, those same cookies tasted like cardboard.

So, maybe the lesson here—for me at least—is that the meals I remember have less to do with food, and more to do the people who’ve been with me when I’ve eaten that food. In the Bible’s Gospel of John, Jesus alienates the religious authorities and loses many of his followers when he talks about being “the bread of life,” and that “whoever eats this bread will live forever.”  But I think I get it: looking back at my various pilgrimages, I have been fed more by the companionship (the word “companion” literally means “with bread”) than by the bread itself. And if I am to continue to live, not just exist, I need to be nourished by more than oatmeal and ice cream.

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On my mother’s 90th birthday, her church threw her a party,

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Roots

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“A tree stands strong not by its fruits or branches, but by the depth of its roots.”

— Anthony Liccione.

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Trees have always called to me, from the white pine tree I used to climb behind my house as a kid, to the stately Douglas Fir and Ponderosa pine I fought forest fires to save when I was in college, to the four-trunked maple tree in the back yard of my home for over twenty-years, to the mighty redwoods I visited a few years ago. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking more about the roots of trees than their trunks or branches, perhaps because I’ve been thinking a lot about my own roots.

In doing some reading about trees, I find that their roots can branch out seven times the height of the tree. When these roots interweave with other roots, they create a single organism. “You can think of a [tree] trunk as really fingertips on a buried hand,” writes ecosystem ecologist Dylan Fisher. The 106 acres of quaking aspen in Fishlake National Forest in Utah are all connected by one 80,000-year-old root system known as Pando, or The Trembling Giant. The trunks, branches, and leaves connected to this system weigh in at 6,600 tons, making this the heaviest known organism on earth.

In thinking of my own roots, I find they also spread out as least seven times beyond the family trunk. My trip to Canada last fall introduced me to an interconnected web of Wiles I never knew existed, stretching throughout southcentral Nova Scotia. My sister spent last year engaged in a genealogical pilgrimage, and has traced the names of our immediate family—Wile, Cleaves, Bennett, and Conrey—back to Reeds, Pooles, Hitchcocks, and Crocketts,  back further to  Whitneys, Davises, Rosses, and Hamiltons, and before that to Giles Corey, the only accused witch in Salem Massachusetts to have been pressed to death instead of hung (his last words were supposedly, “More weight!”), and Priscilla and John Alden (“Speak for yourself, John Alden”). Branching further back to England, my roots include Franklins, Densytes, and Mullins; and in Germany, the Weils, one of whom— Johann Frederich—emigrated to Nova Scotia.

Trees survive through their roots. Fungi infiltrate roots, not to attack but to partner with them, sharing nutrients across threads of what are called fungal hyphae that form what’s known as a mycelium web—a kind of underground internet, linking roots of different plants, helping one another with not only food, but information.  Jennifer Frazier, writing in Scientific American, describes how plants being eaten by herbivores release chemicals that are sensed by neighboring plants, who then increase their defenses. Paper birch send carbon to Douglas-fir seedlings, especially when they are shaded in summer, probably enhancing their survival. In spring and fall, the Douglas-fir return the favor when the birch have no leaves.

And what’s my mycelium web? What nourishes me, gives me information, helps me survive? I have survived as long as I have because of my second wife, Mary Lee, who has been a beacon of love during the darkest days of my life and who continues to nourish me with laughter, eros, food, and friendship. Her children, her grandchildren, her friends, her sister and her sister’s children all grace me with their affection.

My oldest community is made up of the friends I grew up with, many of whom I still get together with regularly, either in person or electronically. Through them, I’m fed not only through stories that no one else but us know (and we’d just as soon keep it that way), but also by the sharing of our pilgrimages through life—our ups, our downs that both sadden and gladden my heart.

There are the teachers I’ve taught with who continue to inspire me with their wisdom, the writers in my various writing groups who educate and challenge me to, as Herman Melville put it, “dive deeper,” the musicians I jam with who bring song and rhythm to my life, the folks I take Communion to in nursing homes who sustain me with their inner strength and perseverance. The writers I’ve read, the records, tapes, and CDs I’ve listened to, the chocolate I’ve eaten. There are the pilgrims I’ve met as I’ve journeyed to my roots, whether they be family homesteads in New England and Nova Scotia or the roots of my faith in Jerusalem, Ephesus, Iona, and Lindisfarne.

More and more as I age, I find my roots sustained by the unseen and the silent. “Everything you see has its roots in the unseen world,” wrote the Persian poet, Rumi. The Jewish Kabbalah’s mystical Tree of Life is pictured with its roots in heaven and its branches and leaves reaching down toward us. Many of the communities that nurture me are connected with this unseen world: my church, the Episcopal monastic order to which I’m an associate, the interfaith organization of contemplatives I belong to, the men’s group I attend Wednesday morning and the Al-Anon groups I attend.

During a recent Quiet Day at my church, I realized that one reason I’ve become concerned with roots is because mine have stopped growing. My only child died of cancer. My brother is gay. My sister’s only son and his wife cannot have children. Thus, my family name ends with my brother and me, and my family tree ends with my nephew and his wife. I found myself drawing the follow picture:

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But even dying trees can support not only their own species but other species as well. For example, according to Jennifer Frazier, when Douglas-fir begin to die, their roots, through fungi, send food to young ponderosa pine battling to survive.  I’d like to think that I might also nourish others who are struggling, through the stories, laughter, love of silence, perseverance, and music that have fed me through the years.

Probably one of the purposes of these blogs, come to think of it.

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And if you liked this blog, you might also be interested in reading:

“Call to the Redwoods”: https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/08/22/call-to-the-redwoods/

“Rooting Around”: https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2017/10/02/rooting-around/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making Assumptions

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When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”

—Oscar Wilde

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Mary Lee and I are planning a trip to Africa. We’re reading up on where we think we might like to go and watching YouTubes made by people who’ve taken trips there. I’ve just finished Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. We’re getting shots for typhoid and hepatitis, and reading up on the kind of pills we need for malaria and what bug sprays to take along.

Planning, writers on pilgrimage agree, is essential to the pilgrimage experience.

What I need to be careful about is that I don’t confuse making plans with making assumptions. I’m better at separating the two—one of the benefits of aging (they do exist)—but I still fall prey to the anxieties, delusions, and disappointments that occur when I make assumptions about what’s going to happen, whether on a pilgrimage, retreat, or quick trip to the grocery store.

Several years ago, as Mary Lee and I planned our pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I assumed the old city would look like all the photographs and paintings I’d seen of glorious holy sites and people kneeling quietly in prayer. Israel, I assumed, would look like the 23rd Psalm: green pastures and still waters. I assumed I would be filled with awe and reverence. I did not assume how steep the streets are, how relentlessly hot the weather can be, and how the crowds could at times be suffocating; nor that I would become sick with dysentery, and that most of the holy sites were swarming with packs of children hounding us for money. Only later—when I returned home, really—did I recognize how important a pilgrimage I’d made. But my assumptions, I think, ruined much of my actual time there.

None of the YouTubes—and I saw a lot of them—on hiking St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose, Scotland to the Island of Lindesfarne off the coast of England prepared us for the hills and the cow shit. (See above photo.) None of the brochures on San Francisco prepared us for the mosquitos that attacked us one night in our hotel. On the other hand, when Mary Lee and I traveled to Iona off the west coast of Scotland, we assumed that a couple of days would be more than enough to cover an island just four miles long and a mile wide. The next year, we spent a week there and still didn’t feel as if we’d stayed long enough.

I’ve made similar faulty assumptions before going on a retreat. Once, I assumed I’d spend my time snowshoeing in the woods and spent it in bed with excruciating back pains. Another time, I thought I would enter a period of silence and slow time and wound up spending several days in tears, banging my head in rage against the side of my bed.

These previous pilgrimages and retreats have helped me learn to put aside preconceived notions about what may or may not happen and accept that what will be is what will be—a lesson I’m trying to carry over into my day-to-day pilgrimage through life. If I’m going to have lunch with some of my old classmates, I try not to assume I’ll wind up arguing over politics and spend that morning getting ready to do battle, because if the subject of whoever’s President never comes up, (which it often doesn’t) I’ve wasted the morning. If I’m going to be spending time with my one, two, and five-year-old grandchildren, I’ve learned that to assume they’re going to arrive at the house wanting me to fix them oatmeal and read books and go to a playground is only going to make both them and me miserable.

It’s taken thirty years, but I’ve learned never to assume how I will be each year from November to Christmas—the two months I spent at my daughter’s bedside when she was dying of cancer. Some years, I’m overly angry or forgetful or sad or sick. Last year, I realized that I wasn’t any of those things; that, in fact, I was cheerful and looking forward to Christmas—until the anniversary of Laurie’s death, when I suddenly spasmed into tears.

Assumptions illustrate how, as the Buddhists say, “We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.” The year after Laurie died, besides being angry, I was confused and afraid. But what I wrote in my journal that year were rants about news articles in which I disdained everyone else for being confused and afraid: book sellers for pulling Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses off their shelves because of fear of Muslim reprisals; people for taking anti-depressants because they were afraid of not feeling happy all the time. These days, I find myself fighting the assumption that because I’m not as strong as I was fifty years ago, neither is my country; that because I’m going to die within the next twenty or so years, the United States will as well.

I find it interesting that when we talk about assumptions, we do not have them, we make them. Assumptions, then, are what we create, we fabricate. There’s also the implication that what we create is false, as when we assume a role in a play or assume a pseudonym. We make these assumptions, I think—okay, I make assumptions, I think—in order to bolster the ego, convince myself that I have control over the future, hide my anxieties about the unknown.

The problem is that these assumptions keep my mind closed to possibility, to mystery. Last week, I ran across a quote by Albert Einstein:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no long wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.

One thing I do now to try to avoid making assumptions is to end each day asking, “What surprised me today?” Not all of these surprises are, of course, pleasant ones—yesterday I was surprised to find caterpillar nests in the beautiful apple blossoms on the tree at the end of our street—but the practice has opened me up a little more to some of life’s mysteries. And at my age, I want to be open and standing in awe as long as I can. My candle’s going to go out pretty soon anyway; I don’t want to snuff it ahead of time.

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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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