On Diminishments



The other day, Mary Lee and I took two of our grandchildren to a nearby playground. There, lying on the tarmac under a basketball hoop, was a basketball. Now, I spent part of almost every day from the time I was fourteen until I was eighteen with a basketball in my hands, and I continued to play competitively until I was in my thirties. Obeying some ancient siren’s song, I picked up the ball and flicked it towards the basket.

The ball went maybe two feet in the air, came back, and hit me on the head.

I recently read a book on aging in which the author used the word “diminishments” to describe what happens as we grow old. (I’d tell you the name of the book and the author, except I forget both, and I can’t find the book anywhere. Which isn’t unusual these days. I spend part of each day looking for something I’ve lost. What is new, though, is that lately, I’ll lose something, try to figure out where I left it, and realize I’m staring right at the goddamn thing.)

Eyesight, hearing, strength, reflexes, libido—all become diminished. I’m guessing most of you reading this know all too well what I’m talking about. You know the sinking feeling of having someone with gray hair offer you his or her seat on public transportation, of struggling to bend enough to get your socks on in the morning, of hating to drive after dark because the lights hurt your eyes. (Or, in my case, taking out a bank loan to buy a new car and then scrapping the side of it because I didn’t judge how close my new car was to a stone wall. But then, I expect you have your own story about aging to tell. When my father-in-law was in his seventies he used to say he was in his “anecdotage.”)

I’ve written here a number of times about how the pilgrimages I’ve made have made me aware of my diminishments: of being passed on the trail by everyone from eight to eighty, of gasping up hills, of falling down mountains. Indeed, most of the writers I’ve read on pilgrimage say that pilgrimage is really about diminishments, of purposely leaving parts of yourself behind in order to become more spiritually attuned to the world around you.

In fact, all of the spiritual traditions I’m familiar with talk about the need to let go of attachments, so I’m trying these days to find benefits in my diminishments—“Let go and let God,” as the twelve-steppers say. And I do think my physical and mental diminishments have allowed me to let go of some things that need letting go of.

I no longer search out mirrors or store windows to check my appearance—sometimes in admiration, sometimes in disgust—no longer obsess about my weight, no longer change hairstyles or grow and then shave off beards. I’ve given up climbing mountains, let go of feeling I should pick up the check when I go out to lunch with someone. I’ve accepted that my shoulders are not going to get any wider, my pot belly any smaller, and I’m not going to gain back the four inches I’ve lost since I played basketball. I no longer feel I need to write the Great American Novel.

I’m losing the need for approval. Like many people, I have always defined myself by what I do, but my well-being has been determined by what I imagine others think of what I do. One of the things I hated about cocktail parties (something I’ve very happily let go of) was when some doctor or lawyer or CEO would ask me, “And what do you do?” Often, despite the fact that my job usually gave me pride and purpose, I’d hunch my shoulders and mumble something about being “just a high school teacher,” as if teaching were the twentieth century equivalent of leprosy.

Writing for publication means receiving rejection notices. It goes with the territory. But for someone who has always needed the approval of others, each rejection felt as if I were being rejected as a person.  That fear of rejection is diminishing, and I feel freer than I ever have before.

But it’s still hard not to define myself by what I do, even if what I do has been diminished. Almost my first thought in the morning is “What am I going to do today?” And almost my last thought at night is “What did I do today? Did I write? Get exercise? Spend time in contemplative prayer? Play the banjo or guitar? Show Mary Lee how much I love her? Help somebody out?”

Don’t get me wrong. All of these are good to do, but I’ve found over the years that defining myself even by worthy activities has led to shame—why didn’t you do them better, you dolt?—judgmentalism—why didn’t you do more?— anxiety—am I going to be able to find time to do everything I want to do today?—all leading to a solipsistic preoccupation with self.

On the other hand, the few times that I’ve been able to focus more on being than doing, I find myself more grateful, more aware of grace in my life. I still don’t understand what I think of as the Great Mystery, but I’ve lived long enough to have experienced it.

I know that. My ego, however, doesn’t. And doesn’t want to. My ego says this “Let go and let God” stuff is weakness. “Stop doing and you’ll die!” it tells me.

Well, guess what? I’m going to die anyway. And maybe the real lesson of my diminishments is to remind me—more and more often these days—of that fact, and that I need to spend what time I have left being open to recognizing grace and being grateful for the joys I’ve experienced, most of which—Mary Lee, her children, my daughter, my grandchildren, my parents and siblings, music, Nature—I’ve received regardless, even in spite of, anything I ever did.


My diminishments point out the need to surrender to my Higher Power/Great Mystery/God/Whatever while I’m still able. I’m struggling, but this week I’ve started to ask myself in the morning, “What do I get to do today?” Maybe it’s just semantics, but I’ve found the change helpful. Also helpful is remembering I’m making a pilgrimage, not a hundred-yard-dash. As Richard Rohr writes: “The surrender of faith does not happen in one moment, but is an extended journey, a trust walk, a gradual letting go, unlearning, and handing over.”

I’ve got time. I’m not that diminished yet.

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Work as Pilgrimage



“Work…like life, is a pilgrimage, a journey in which we progress not only through the world but through stages of understanding.” David Whyte


A friend who knows I write this blog recently gave me David Whyte’s book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity. “Work,” writes Whyte, is “an opportunity for discovering and shaping the place where the self meets the world.” Even as we are shaping the work we do, he says, our work is shaping us.

I’ve always thought I should separate who I am from what I am, always disliked the fact that when I meet people for the first time, one of their first questions is invariably, “What do you do?” (Or now, “What did you do?) But this book has me pondering how much the work I’ve done has made me—shaped me, if you will—into the person I am today.

For most of my working life, I’ve been, in one form or another, a teacher—a vocation, I now see, I was cut out for. I still remember the jolt of energy I felt my first day of teaching, when I overheard a kid whisper to another: “Hey, he’s pretty cool!” And for the next thirty years, seeing faces light up after I’d shown kids something in a Hemingway short story, a Frost poem, or a Shakespearean play was one of the greatest feelings in the world. Right up there with sex.

I can certainly see how I shaped my work, especially during the first half of my teaching career. As head of the English Department at Mount Desert Island High School on the coast of Maine, I helped instigate and administer a new English curriculum, which included two Advanced Placement English programs that, one state evaluator said, rivaled the curriculum at Phillips Exeter Academy.

But I’ve never realized before now that at the same time I was shaping the curriculum, this curriculum was shaping me. During those years, I created a persona based on the college professors I admired. Driven by the shame of growing up in an alcoholic family, teaching at MDIHS gave me the respect I craved, even to the point of becoming intimidating. At a time when teachers were dressing more and more informally, I wore suits and vests and ties with matching pocket-handkerchiefs. I assigned abstruse literary works by William Faulkner and James Joyce; I covered student compositions with acerbic comments, which more than once reduced school valedictorians to tears.

I became a local legend at MDIHS. And, for a while, I loved it.

Then suddenly I was suffocating. “I have become everything I hate,” I wrote in my journal. My teaching persona felt more and more like a body bag. This urge to break out of what seemed like prison led to the break up of my marriage, which, ironically, had been weakened over the years by the amount of time I’d spend preparing lessons, correcting compositions, and designing English programs.

Finally, I left MDIHS in the middle of the school year to marry another woman and live in southern Maine.

Since then, I’ve looked back at those fifteen years as misspent, seen myself as phony, blamed myself for hiding behind walls. Overlooking the students from those years who still write to me, I’ve focused only on the students I failed by not taking into account a horrific home life or a major learning disability.

Whyte’s book is helping me understand those years differently: “…often it is simply the nature of things that walls that once served and sheltered us…only imprison us when we have remained within their confines for too long.”

The book also shows me how I broke out of that prison. Whyte talks about our need for “an outlaw figure,” an image from our youth to emulate of someone who represented freedom, who seemed to live outside society’s walls. I see now that for me that figure was a composite of the writers I’d been teaching—Hemingway, the Romantic poets, Thoreau—and whom I began to understand not as puzzles to be solved, but as writers, seeking to understand the world around them. At MDIHS, remembering my own high school dreams of being the next Ernest Hemingway, I’d started a creative writing elective, which became the one place I could catch my breath. After I remarried and found a new teaching position at Brunswick High School, I created another creative writing class, open to all students, so that I had “special needs” kids sitting next to the advanced placement students. When offered the chance to teach senior A.P. English again and become English Department head, I turned both offers down. “We must,” writes Whyte, “give up exactly what we thought was necessary to protect us from further harm.” Whether by accident or grace or something, I realized that to put on my old persona would like sentencing myself to life a behind bars.

After the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter from cancer, it was impossible for me not to look at some of my more unpleasant students and think, “Why the hell are you alive when my daughter is dead?” I found it harder and harder to teach at the high school level. Driven also by my own need to write, I took early retirement from public education, thinking that my teaching days were over. But to bring in money while I went back to school, I started working in a writing center at Bates College. I soon came to enjoy working with college students, not seeing myself as a font of wisdom standing in front of a classroom, but as a pair of ears sitting beside them.

Even after receiving my MFA, I continued at Bates for another ten years. During that time I began facilitating spiritual writing groups at my church, which I continue to do. Then after leaving Bates, I started volunteering at the Gathering Place, a day shelter for the homeless and materially poor in Brunswick. After a month or so there, I was sitting with a guy and we started shooting the breeze. He told me he’d lost his construction job and was living in the homeless shelter. I said I’d been a teacher.

“What’d you teach?” he asked.

“English,” I said. “Literature and writing. I really liked teaching creative writing.”

“Why don’t you offer something like that here?” he said. “I’ve got a lot I’d like to say.”

And I’ve been doing “something like that” now for over five years.


Looking back on my career as a pilgrimage, I see that I began teaching by working my damnedest to appear powerful, wise, and in control, and that I’m ending it sitting with others in my various writing groups, all of us “writing to discover” some of this mystery we call life.

So maybe Whyte is right when he says that we shape our work, and are in turned shaped by the work we have done. If so, I count myself fortunate to have spent my life working at a job I’ve almost always enjoyed, work which may have shaped me to become more vulnerable and more open, even though I have a long way to go.

But hell, that’s what a pilgrimage is for, isn’t it?

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