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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On Diminishments

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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.

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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

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

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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.

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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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