Have Snakeskin, will Travel


Over the past 30 years, I’ve made many retreats to monasteries. The silence, punctuated by worship several times a day, slows me down, increases my awareness, and keeps me centered. All of which have helped me live comfortably during this last year of COVID-enforced isolation.

But as much as I love monasteries, I’ve never had any desire to be a monk. There’s the celibacy thing, for one thing, but also the fact that, at least in the monastery I’m most familiar with, the Brothers clean out their cells every year, discarding everything but the bare essentials. As one Brother explained, “Refraining from possession helps us remember the transient nature of earthly life.”

Well, I’ll admit it. I want my possessions. The room in which I’m writing this is full of them. I have bowls of stones from the various pilgrimages Mary Lee and I have made, a hat covered in hat pins from states and countries I’ve been to, and a budding collection of banjos. I also have random things: a wooden plate made by my father, a few joke books written by an old friend, now deceased, a pencil holder that used to belong to my father-in-law…

And a snakeskin.

Almost 60 years old, the skin rests on my bookcase, brittle, brown, and bent. When I pick it up, it crinkles like old parchment. Some of the translucent scales underneath, looking like fragments of old scotch tape, have fallen off (another came off now). I can’t think of anybody who’d want the damn thing except me. And I wouldn’t part with it for $1000.

As I run my fingers over the mottled brown and yellow skin, the years fall away and it is the summer of 1963. I am slowly coming down a steep slope of something between a hill and a mountain in the Payette National Forest in Idaho. Below me is the third fork of the Salmon River. (Often called “The River of No Return.” If you can, check out the 1954 movie by that name starring Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe.) As I descend, picking my way through blackened rocks and burned shrubs and grass, I begin to encounter small groves of Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir, which I check to make sure aren’t smoldering. But they’re fine. The fire didn’t get down this far.

I’m working on a Hotshot Crew based in McCall, Idaho, a small touristy town on the edge of Payette Lake (something like 5,000 people and eight bars) about thirty miles from here. Our crew is a regional crew, which means we’re flown to any state in the upper western United States that has a large forest fire. The term “hotshot” describes those who work on the hottest part of a forest fire. Our primary job is to dig a fire line around the fire. We have a crew of eighteen, plus a crew chief, Paul, an assistant crew chief, Tex, and a scout, Dave Bodley, “Bo Diddly,” we call him, a bear of a guy who goes ahead with a chain saw, cutting down limbs, clearing a path through fallen trees. Then, we follow in a line as close to the fire as we can get. Twelve of us carry pulaskis, a tool which combines an axe and a hoe in one head on a three-foot handle, to scrape the forest duff and chop roots.

Pulaski (from Wikipedia}

The remaining six of us have shovels to scrape and widen the fire line to about three feet or more. The idea is to cut a fire line and walk at a steady pace at the same time for as long as needed, sometimes for up to twelve hours. Once the fire is contained, we go into the burned areas and put out individual hot spots by scraping the burning coals from the trees or shoveling dirt on the flames or just digging smaller fire lines and letting the fire burn itself out. Then, when the fire’s under control, we let the locals mop up what’s left and head back to McCall.

Headed out. (Wikipedia)

Except this time we’re the locals. The Payette is our own National Forest, and after we contained the blaze, I volunteered to stay behind with Tex, Birddog, and Mike for two or three days to make sure we didn’t miss any remaining fire.

So we have two or three days to hike up and down the hills looking for smokes, swim in the chilly waters of the Salmon River, have Pulaski throwing contests, play poker around a campfire, and hunt rattlesnakes. These rocks and ravines are home to all kinds of snakes who like to come out in the afternoon and sun themselves, and I want to catch a rattler.

Despite the fact that this is my second summer on the job, I’ve never run into one. Part of our training has been to learn what to do if bitten and I have a snake-bite kit in my backpack, but so far, all I’ve seen are bull snakes, who look like the Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes that live here, but don’t have the rattles.

Then, on the ground ahead of me in front of an opening in some rocks, I see a snake. I inch my way closer, but I still can’t tell what kind it is. In addition to having rattles, rattlesnakes’ eyes are more like cat’s eyes than those on a bull snake, but I’m not near enough yet to tell.

When I’m maybe a couple of yards away, my foot crunches some gravel. Within seconds, the snake coils, raising its arrow-shaped head and tail. I hear the rattling. Without thinking, I take a giant step forward, swing my Pulaski over my head and drive it down through the snake, slicing it into three pieces.

The smallest piece is the head. I poke it with the Pulaski, noting its long thin tongue outside its mouth. I take the other two pieces to camp. Tex shows me how to skin them, and hang the skins up on a branch to dry in tomorrow’s sun. That night we have a rattlesnake appetizer (and yes, it tastes like chicken) to go with our canned Vienna sausages. Two days later, I take the largest skin, about 15” long, with me.

I know my life is transient—“like grass,” as the Psalmist says. Which is why I need to spend what’s left of it looking at more than the small grove of fir trees out my back window. Especially in this year of not being able to travel physically, I need a wider view. Of 10,000-foot mountains and a river full of cutthroat trout, bull trout, rainbow trout, mountain white fish, sockeye salmon, Chinook salmon, steelhead, smallmouth bass, squawfish, sucker, and sturgeon. Of guys from California, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Utah, and Colorado, with names like Bo-Diddley, Birddog, Tex, Spankie, and Alfalfa.

 A view that encompasses not only space but time: when I had a different name, “Froggie,” because of the way I hopped when I was first learning to dig a fire line; when I could dig that fire line for twelve hours and then walk another ten miles out to a cattle truck taking me to the airport; when I could flip a Pulaski fifteen feet and stick it into a pine tree. When the stars at night seemed to be so close that I could reach out and grab one any time I wanted.

All of which I can access by simply holding objects like a dried-up snakeskin in my arthritic hands. Suddenly, I am standing on the top of one of those 10,000-foot mountains, gazing over the vast landscape that is memory.

3rd Fork of the Salmon River. (Wikipedia)

# #



It’s a cold day in February and I’m sitting at my desk looking out at a gray world: gray sky, gray snow, gray road, even a couple of gray squirrels frolicking in the faint gray shadows of the trees in the hollow beside the house. (Sorry, they scampered out of the picture above.)

I start thinking about gray…

I’m of an age where almost all of my friends are gray, which reminds me of those great lines by Leonard Cohen: “Well, my friends are gone, and my hair is gray./ I ache in all the places that I used to play.”

Yup. The last time I played ball with my grandson, my shoulder hurt for two days. A good day’s work would kill me.

Googling what people have to say about gray, I find the comments often bleak. There’s a bluegrass song with the haunting refrain: “There’s nothing quite as lonely as the cold gray light of gone.” Besides loneliness, gray is the color of prisons, winter (“The gray dawn slaughters / the promise of Spring / Winter’s desperate last goodbye”: Kurt Philip Behm), boredom and conformity (I recall a novel, later made into a movie, called The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, an indictment of 1950’s American values).

People often want to change gray to something more colorful. They look to others—from American writer Jane Bernstein: “You smiled. It was like the sun breaking out on a gray day”—or urge you to do it yourself—motivational speaker Allen Klein: “Your attitude is like a box of crayons that color your world. Constantly color your picture gray, and your picture will always be black.”

Speaking of coloring, 75% of American women over the age of 35 color their hair, and 11% of American men. One reason why, according to one source I found, is that graying hair is often the first sign of aging. People look in the mirror and suddenly they see their parents or grandparents. Judging from what I see on television, gray hair goes along with COPD, arthritis, and Depends.

The thing is, I love my wife’s gray hair. Actually, I like gray hair, period. And interestingly enough—at least to me—is the fact that the percentage of women over 60 who dye their hair shrinks to 55%. Maybe the lesson here is that it’s okay in our culture to begin to age after the age of 60.

As I think about it, I just plain like the color gray. That I’m not alone makes me feel better. Leonardo DaVinci apparently said that a gray day provides the best light for painting because it makes other colors stand out. That’s certainly true in New England in the fall. Nothing brings out the red, orange, and yellow foliage like a gray day, especially if there’s a little gray fog drifting through the trees.

French author and Nobel prize winner Andre Gide takes gray to another level when he writes, “The color of truth is gray.”

I think of how I was raised to see the world in black and white, like the photographs I have of myself as a kid. There was us and them, good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats, red-blooded Americans and cold-blooded Communists… Now, however, I see life as far more often a mix of black and white—i.e. gray.

And it’s how they’re mixed that fascinates me. Despite a rather notorious (I gather; I haven’t read it) book that talks about 50 shades of gray, my on-line research tells me the human eye can distinguish 32 shades of gray. That’s still a lot. If I go to a paint store, I can find some 30 shades of gray, with names like Gainsboro, Spanish, Manatee, Davy’s, Mole, and Regent. Looking out the window at the sky, I can see a blue-gray horizon, turning to smoke gray, then ash-gray, swirled with charcoal. Or maybe the swirls are gun-metal gray… Pewter?

“Most consequential choices involve shades of gray,” wrote former U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. That’s certainly been true in my life. I used to think of divorce as evil—black, a sin—until I had to balance that with my emotional and physical health.

I always thought suicide was wrong, until I read articles about people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or ALS who decided for the sake of their family to go to a place where they could get help with an assisted suicide. Now, I’m not so sure what I’d do if I found myself with a similar disease.

Abortion? Reading the Bible? The death penalty? Shades of Gray.

The former U.S. Treasury Secretary went on to say, “…and some fog is often useful in getting things done.” I’m not sure how that translates into monetary policy, but it’s exploring foggy shades of gray that drives me to write, and whatever creativity I have emerges from that exploration.

When I first started teaching writing in the middle 1960’s, English teachers stressed the Five Paragraph Essay (as a matter of fact, I taught from a text with that title), where students were expected to start with a thesis—a statement summing up the main idea of the essay—put that in a sentence at the end of the first introductory paragraph, then write three paragraphs illustrating why the thesis was valid, followed by a concluding paragraph summing up what they’d already written. The problem was, I found that when I tried to write that way, I lost all my creativity because I was starting with what I knew, not what I didn’t know. Writing to discover changed the way I wrote and way I taught writing.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent almost all of my life living on the foggy coast of Maine, but I’m uncomfortable without clouds. Without gray. I still remember the merciless sun glaring down in Israel, casting everything in a harsh light, as if it were scalding my bones. I much preferred the hazy, shimmering light on the Scottish island of Iona, which gave the heather, the hills, the stones, the sheep an ethereal glow. Or the thick blanket of fog that crept up the ravine at sunset in Big Sur, California and then turned pink before enveloping my hermitage.

Likewise, I’m really uneasy with certainties. People who proclaim some “Truth”—whether about theology, politics, or education—scare the hell out of me.

After spending much of my life searching for answers, I find that as I’ve grown grayer, I’m happier today with the questions—questions and watching squirrels play in the fir trees under a sky of a blue-gray turning to smoke gray, then ash-gray, striated with charcoal or gun-metal or pewter.  

I’d just as soon have some warmer weather, though.

# #

Putting Away the Past


“…. by participating in a ritual, … you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life. I think ritual is terribly important.” Joseph Campbell


It’s January 7, the day after Epiphany. Yesterday, Mary Lee and I watched goons in red hats knock our democracy to its knees. Still, as I’ve done on today’s date for I don’t know how long, I put on The Christmas Revels, (a CD; we wore out the tape we bought right after we’d seen a performance of this Solstice celebration over thirty years ago) and begin to take down our Christmas tree, removing the ornaments, packing them away for another year.

“Wassail, wassail, all over the town…”

We take off the unbreakable ornaments first. Most of them come from our travels: several woolen sheep of various sizes and a wooden long-haired highland cow from Scotland, probably our favorite country to visit; a couple of olivewood Jerusalem crosses from Israel; a weighty wooden St. Nicholas from Cambridge, England; and a porcelain nazar, an eye-shaped Turkish amulet believed to protect against the evil eye, which we bought in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. (And which for some reason, I can’t get to print. You’ll have to Google it.)

“Here come I, Old Father Christmas…”

Putting them away in the bottom of the box, I think of Columba’s Bay on Iona, the cobweb of streets in the Old City of Jerusalem, drinking “Green King Ale” in The Champion on the Thames with Dick and Janet Graham, sharing Turkish meze platters with our friends Lynne and Finlay. Later today, I might dig out a map or a travel guide to expand a snippet of memory into a full narrative, some of which might even have actually happened. If not, so what? It’s my memory.

“The boar’s head in hand bear I…”

Next, we take off the homemade ornaments from the children and grandchildren. Mary Lee’s sons used to make God’s eyes—you know, running different colored yarn around various sized crosses. We’ve also got decorations showing their growth into adulthood: a couple of felt cats named for Jeremy’s first two pets that followed him around from one apartment to another, and—perhaps our most unique ornament—a soft brown diarrhea microbe, which was from Jeremy’s wedding to a professor whose PhD is in Tropical and Diarrheal Diseases.

Our most recent additions to the tree are from last year, when all four grandchildren were into fuse-beads, which for those of you who haven’t played with grandchildren lately are colorful beads arranged on a plastic pegboard to form a pattern or a shape and then fused together with a clothes iron (which is, quite frankly, the only time we’ve used an iron in the last 20 years).

“There was a pig went out to dig,

Chris-i-mas Day, Chris-i-mas Day…”

Many of the more fragile ornaments come from our childhoods and get wrapped in tissue paper. Mary Lee has an angel that her mother remembered from when she was a girl, making it around a hundred years old. I’ve got a couple of glass ornaments from our family tree, as well as a plastic Santa Claus on skis from the 1940s that I’m pretty sure came with a six-pack of Coca-Cola, which I used to drink in vanilla ice cream floats on Christmas Day after we’d opened our presents (which would have been about 9:00 in the morning. Yeech!)

“The holly and the ivy…”

Perhaps because my parents grew up in homes where Christmas was fraught with alcoholism and other family disfunction, they tried hard to make sure their children’s Christmases were happy ones. And on the whole, they succeeded. For me, Christmas is a time to remember and honor my family, not just my parents and siblings, but the extended family of which I am a part.

“Dance, then, wherever you may be

I am the Lord of the Dance,” said he…”

The two ornaments Mary Lee gave me for our first Christmas together go in their own boxes: a red ball—naturally—for the Boston Red Sox and a silver and green one for the Boston Celtics. Both teams have had their ups and down over the last 35 years, but by in large, they’ve done well. Mary Lee and I have also had our ups and downs, but I think we’ve done even better.

“Nowell, nowell, nowell,

Nowell sing we clear!…”

My most prized ornament, and I usually pack it away last so that it’s right on top to put on first next year, is a cloth ornament my daughter Laurie embroidered for Mary Lee and me for our first Christmas together. She was sixteen at the time, two years away from the cancer that killed her. Wrapping the ornament, I see by her signature on the back that this was the year she called herself by her middle name, “Leigh.” A time when a future of limitless possibility seemed to lie before her.

“On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me

A partridge in a pear tree…”

It usually takes just about as long to put away the ornaments as it does to listen to the entire Christmas Revels, which I’ll also set aside for another year. These songs and dances celebrate the fusion of Christianity and the pagan festivals surrounding the winter solstice and the rebirth of the year. In many ways, they are a dance of light and dark, death and life, past and present.

I’m packing away, then, not only ornaments but memories and stories, both happy and sorrowful. And while I think it’s important, especially as I age, not to dwell on the past but to focus on the present and the future, these ornaments will stay with me throughout the rest of the year in some closet of my subconscious, subtle yet constant reminders that what has saved me before in times of grief, illness, and addiction—faith, family, friends, the natural world, art and music—can save me in today’s lethal political climate, can save me in the future.

They give me a reason to want to live. They give me hope.

“God bless the master of this house,

With happiness beside,

Where’re his body rides or walks

His God must be his guide,

His God must be his guide.”

# #

Showing Up

Photo curtesy of Heather Spring


A friend—I’ll call him Gary—has neighbors whose twenty-year-old son recently died in an automobile accident. Because Gary knows I’ve lost a child, he asked me if I had any advice on what he could say to them. Although I shy away from giving anyone advice on grieving (more on that later), I did send him some thoughts about what helped me and also what made things worse in the years immediately after Laurie died. A month or so later, he wrote to thank me, that what I’d written was showing him how to be with his neighbors in ways they seemed to appreciate.

Because it seems to have helped Gary, and because we are entering the holiday season, which for many of us grieving parents is the hardest time of the year, and because this year is especially hard (As I write this, 284,000 people in this country have died from COVID 19, which means, even granting the death rate is higher for older people, possibly that many grieving parents), I’m going to pass on what I emailed Gary for any of you who know someone who is grieving the loss of a child this year..


My experience and reading both say that it’s not what you should say to parents when a child dies but what you shouldn’t say. Even the most well-meant words can ignite anger and shame.

For example:

• “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” The first time I heard someone say this to me after Laurie died, I thought, Yeah, my life is a mountain of rubble and you want me to think of things for you to do? Well, screw you!

• “How are you doing?” How the hell did I know? My entire world—my values, my belief in God, my image of how the world works—had just been obliterated. Often, I would mumble, “Fine.” Later, I joined a 12-step program and learned that means, “Fucked up, Insecure, Numb, and Empty.” Which was about right.

• “Be grateful for the time you had together.” This is like telling someone who’s just had both of their legs blown off to be thankful they used to be able to walk.

• “Everything happens for a reason.” This is another comment that still has me pounding the walls, along with, “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle,” or “God must have wanted another angel in heaven.” Well, if God is that kind of super sadist, you can send me to Hell.

• “I know exactly how you feel.” Usually followed by, “When my grandfather/Uncle/mother/ dog/ died…” I’m sorry, but if you really knew how I feel, you’d shut the hell up.

• “Grief just takes time.” How is that supposed to help me get through the day, let alone nights that are five years long?

• “You need to get on with your life, get back to normal.” I first heard this a month after Laurie died. The most recent time was about a year ago.  My response hasn’t changed: This is my life. There will never be anymore goddamned “normal.”

• “At least she’s no longer suffering.” Or “she’s at peace.” And I’m still grieving like hell, thank you very much.

It’s not that some of these are necessarily bad advice. Thirty years after Laurie’s death, I am happy for the time we had together. The effects of grief do lessen over time. I do think she’s in a better place. I have moved on, and while my life has never returned to “normal,” it is in some ways more joyful.

But when I’m grieving I don’t want advice, even the most well-intentioned. In my shame and my anger, your advice makes me feel that you’re on some kind of pedestal of knowledge looking down on me, and I’m just that much more isolated in my grief.

What I need is to feel is that you’re beside me.


So, is there anything you can say? Not much. Maybe something along the lines of “I’m thinking of you and wish there were words to comfort you.” I did find it helpful to have people ask me what happened, and more helpful if someone asked me about Laurie in ways that I could talk about what a beautiful, compassionate kid she was. I was particularly grateful if someone who had known my daughter had a story to share with me about her. I was grateful for flowers and for donations made in Laurie’s name, not only to the Cancer Society and the Ronald McDonald House, but also to Pilgrim Lodge Summer Camp and Amnesty International, two of Laurie’s favorite activities.

Some writers about grief suggest providing information on grief counselors or helping parents plan some kind of memorial. Although I later sought counseling and bought a memorial stone for my daughter to place in our family cemetery, I didn’t want any of that at first. For over a year after Laurie’s death, I just wanted to be left alone. But at the same time, I wanted to know someone was there when I needed them.

Bottom line: it’s a question of doing, not saying. What can you do for the grieving parent—cards, flowers, meals? Can you give them a call every week or so simply to say, “How about those Red Sox?”

It’s especially important not to disappear after the first month or so. That’s just another way of saying “You need to get on with your life.”  

Let them grieve. Listen. Don’t judge. I met with a woman for almost a year after her son died—gave her all kinds of advice, books to read, and so forth. A few years later, I ran into her and she said how much I’d helped her.                         

“Anything I said in particular?” I said, looking for guidance on what to say to others. “I don’t remember a damn thing you said,” she told me. “All I remember is that you cared enough to have lunch with me once a week.”

So, I never give advice to anyone who’s grieving unless they ask for it. I’m also leery enough about giving advice to people who want to help someone in grief to caution that everyone grieves differently and, as a general rule, men grieve differently than women (which contributes to the higher-than-average divorce rate among grieving parents.)

But if I were to give you any advice, I’d simply say, shut up and show up.

# #

Just Pondering


Recent entry in my dream journal: “I’m walking along a winding dirt road through some woods. The trees loom tall, redwoods, perhaps, but stand closer together. I can see nothing in them. All is dark. At first, I’m frightened by what might be in these woods, but gradually, I become curious. I decide to leave the road and enter the darkness.”

I started keeping a dream journal about a year ago, after attending a four-week program on dreams, using the theories of Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychologist and psychoanalyst. Jung felt that dreams were our private myths and served to help heal us by showing us how to live to our fullest potential. I write my dreams down to help me try to figure out what might be spawning them and what they’re trying to tell me, keeping in mind that for Jung, the goal is not to interpret dreams so much as it is to, as he said, “amplify” them, expanding or increasing the meanings we might give them.

The most obvious interpretation of this dream is that the dark woods are the dark woods of my mortality. Another high school classmate has died recently of a heart attack. A year and a half ago, I had heart bypass surgery. I recovered, feeling better than I’d felt in years. Three or four months ago, however, I had a day when I had some tightness in my chest and my legs felt heavy. Even when the tightness went away, walking for the next day or so was like slogging through Maine’s mudflats. Since then, I’ve had periods of light headedness and my heart rate has dropped in the morning to below 50 bpm and jumped during normal walking, sometimes to over 130 bpm. I tire more easily.

So, I contacted my heart doctor, who asked me to wear a monitor for two weeks and have a stress test. As we did a year and a half ago, Mary Lee and I had some serious discussions. Once again, I showed her where all the financial stuff is.  I thought again about what I want printed on my funeral bulletin and grew misty-eyed in thinking about not being able to watch my grandchildren become adults.

But earlier this week, after I’d had the stress test, pounding the treadmill and watching on a monitor images of my heart that looked like cartoon sea creatures, the doctor said my heart looks to be in great shape—that if it was possible to ace a stress test, I did.

 So perhaps the dark woods of my dream don’t represent my physical mortality, but the death of life as I’ve lived it for nearing eighty years. I mean, even if my light-headedness and heart fluctuations can be corrected, I know that I can no longer walk as far or as fast as I could even a year ago, and that all those lessons I learned in my athletic days—“suck it up!” “Go through the pain!” “Move it, Wile, faster, faster!” —not only don’t work anymore, they could kill me. I will have to learn to live with heart issues just as I’ve had to learn to live with back problems.

Equally, if not more important, I’m going to have to accept that values I’ve held all my life—respecting the dignity of others, working together for the common good, the value of education, hospitality, self-sacrifice—seem to be becoming more endangered species in today’s divisive culture. I’m not sure I will ever feel completely safe in this country again.

That I’m afraid of the dark woods in my dream—whether they represent my body or my values—makes sense, but that I can be curious about them to the point of actually wanting to enter the darkness?

Maybe that’s exactly what I need to do. My 12-step sponsor and I often talk about how important curiosity can be in my life as a way to overcome my tendency to be judgmental of others and of myself. Judgment, she says, is narrow, limiting, and leads to anxiety when I judge I’m being threatened. Curiosity, she says, will be expansive, giving me room to grow.

Still, replacing fear with curiosity seems like a tall order.


And maybe I don’t need to. In one of those moments of synchronicity that often come when I’m writing these blogs, I was looking through my old journals a while back and ran across a postcard I’d picked up at a retreat a couple of years earlier. At first it seemed a sweet picture—a naked child reaching out towards a hummingbird—until I discovered that the artist, Holly Meade, titled her woodcut “Pondering Death.” I’d pulled the picture out of the journal and stuck it in a folder of ideas for future blogs.

Pondering Death. Woodblock & Linoleum Prints by Holly Meade

I examined the postcard again, treating it like another dream. Death, in the figure of the bird, is small but bright red, the only color here besides black and white. The hummingbird still looks alive to me. Or maybe the red is to make it not alive, but real. The child, who could be male or female, is naked, vulnerable. The way the hair falls keeps the young person totally focused on the bird, yet the way the hair is sharply cut creates a palpable space between child and bird, between life and death.

Most of all, I’m struck by how the artist shows the act of “pondering” in the body rather than in the face. The boy or girl squats, one hand reaching out, as if to hold the bird, but barely touching it, the other hand stretched behind for balance, as if to keep from falling.

In fact, everything in this woodcut seems in balance: male and female, sitting and standing, reaching out and drawing back, curiosity and fear.

Maybe my dream of the dark woods is not so much about replacing fear with curiosity, but of pondering them both without judgment. My doctor told me that I was wise to let him know of the changes in my heart, by which I take it that a little fear is a good thing. The trick is not to let fear close me off and to cultivate that part of me that retains a childlike sense of curiosity, wonder, enthusiasm, and delight about what lies around me.

And maybe, since this is the week of Thanksgiving, I can set my fears aside at least for a few days and be not only curious, but grateful for my family, my writing, my banjo, my daily walks (albeit taken more slowly), and the other graces that abound in my life.

After all, in that dream, I don’t actually enter the dark woods. I’m still walking the road. (With a break now and then.)




Inertia. Physics. A property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.


                        … what tried to climb up the back stairs

                        of heaven’s mansion falls back, caught

                        on the trellis, hemmed and hawed, snagged

                        and stunted to the gravity field, that

                        unforgiving inertia which we call “ourselves.”

                                                            Rebecca Seiferle, “Law of Inertia.”


I’m walking into the woods behind my house, past what is usually a pond, but what is now, thanks to a dry summer and early fall, nothing but a mud hole. I stop and gaze at the cracked clay, the animal tracks, the half-buried rocks and sticks …

I know now where the expression “stick in the mud” comes from. That’s me these days. Seven months into the pandemic, I’m less and less wanting to go to the store, take a drive—hell, today, even walking in the woods feels like a chore—and when I do go out, I usually find somebody to be irritated with: someone without a mask, somebody cutting me off in the parking lot. I’m sleeping more. I’m spending even more time that usual on YouTube, mired in the 50s, hanging out with Dion, Jerry Lee, Buddy, and Sam Cooke, longing for the good old days.


Seeking to climb out of this mudhole of inertia, I go to my journals to try to recapture some of the sights, sounds, and smells of a pilgrimage or two, enjoy some of the excitement, feel some of the growth I’ve experienced in past years.

But what I notice is how many pages I devote to my apprehension before these trips, how often I write about rearranging my office or bookshelves in the days leading up to departure as if I were settling in instead of going anywhere. For example, in looking at my journal for the last extended trip Mary Lee and I took, to Tanzania, I see that I spent almost as many pages worrying about the trip as I did in describing the trip itself. “I say I’m trying to be open to what’s next,” I write, “but so far I’m not succeeding, only closing up, trying to lose myself in novels, YouTube, and Netflix. And I’m tired, even before our trip begins, not sleeping well.”

Mmm. Sounds like what’s going on in my life now.

I worried I was too old for an 18-hour plane ride and hikes at 6-9 thousand feet. I felt unsure of how to act in another culture, frightened of coming across as an ugly, Trump-loving American. And I spent the day before we left finding a new place for the heater in my office, moving a radio upstairs, working on a new blog about growing up in a small Maine village—all efforts to do something—anything—other than deal with my anxiety. All efforts to stay put.

In other words, I was afraid.

I’m not sure I’ve ever thought much about what an important a part fear plays in inertia, at least the kind of inertia I’m stuck in these days. When I haven’t been mucking around with YouTube, I’ve been reading how previous pandemics have changed the course of history—from the plague (probably typhoid) of 438 B.C.E. which weakened the Athenian army so that it fell to its enemy Sparta, through the Justinian Plague of 541 A.C.E. which led to the rise of Christianity, through the Black Death of the 14th Century which led to the weakening of Christianity and the rise of the middle class, to the almost complete extinction of American indigenous people from European diseases, to the convulsive social changes of the 1920s after the 1919 pandemic. Periods after pandemics, I see, are often filled with violence, especially against scapegoats like early Christians, Jews, Native Americans, immigrants, and Black people.

Which is probably why I want to cling to the past, go back to those good old days when I was oblivious to much of the world around me.


But as my journals show, once I’m able to pull myself out of my inertia, my anxiety, and enter into the not-knowing of the pilgrimage experience, I grow in ways I never thought possible. Once I was able to start looking outside of myself instead of spending my time focused inward (another definition of inertia, come to think of it), those ten days in Tanzania became one of the highlights of my life.

And it’s possible that after this pandemic, humanity will make a great leap forward, become more global, learn how to work together, eliminate violence. As my Quaker friends say, “Sometimes, way has to close before way can open.”

I don’t know, of course, which is why, until change actually happens, I remain stuck in that “unforgiving inertia we call ‘ourselves,’” as poet Rebecca Seiferle puts it.

Looking at that line, I’m struck by the word “unforgiving,” which to me usually means not showing mercy, not allowing for mistakes or weakness.  And I wonder if, since I can’t overcome my inertia, maybe I could be a little more forgiving of myself for being fearful about the world today.

Maybe even go a little further than forgiveness?

Besides old journals, I like to look at old photographs. On my computer, just up from the picture I took of the mudhole that used to be a pond, I see a picture I took when Mary Lee and I met her son and his family for a socially distant get-together with the grandchildren on the shore. It was low tide. When we got there, the children were already wading in the mud, looking for clams and horseshoe crabs, mud on their hands, their faces, trying to run without falling, laughing.

Looking at the photo now, I feel a sudden sense of joy. I realize I need to accept the fact that these are difficult times and that I can’t know how they will turn out. According to Newton’s first law of motion, sometimes called the law of inertia, inertia can only be overcome by some external force. I have no idea, nor do I have any control over, what kind of force—a vaccine? a bomb? riots?—will end this seven-months-and-counting pandemic. Or, for that matter, if, at the age of 77, I’ll be around to see whatever does happen.

But, instead of slogging through the mud of inertia, maybe I can find ways to keep moving, even play in it.

Here’s an idea. If I can’t stop watching Dion and the Belmonts, perhaps I should sing along with them? Snap my fingers? Learn the choreography?

Want to join me? Altogether now:

Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun d-d-duh-duh-duh

“I wonder why-y-y, I love you like I do.

Dun dun dun dun dun dun d-d-duh-duh-duh …

# #

My New Frontier

JFK at the University of Maine—1965 Yearbook


Recently, Mary Lee and I met her son and his family at a state park halfway between our respective homes for a rare face-to-face visit. After lunch, during which Mary Lee and I stood six feet from the picnic table, I pitched a plastic ball to my 8-year-old grandson who’s developing into a pretty good left-handed hitter. Both of us wore our masks. When the families left a few hours later, we gave each other “virtual hugs” and blew kisses.

As I was pitching to John, I started wondering how this pandemic will mark him, his sister, and their generation. Which led me to thinking about “defining moments,” those events that have transformed the political, cultural, and social landscape of our lives. From there, it was the blink of an eye to thinking about my own defining moments. The first one I thought of was President Kennedy’s assassination.


When I was eighteen, the speeches of John F. Kennedy were neon signs lighting my road to adulthood: “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier” … “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”…  “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” The man spurred my imagination. I decided I would live a life of adventure, passion and danger. After high school, I started traveling, first thumbing rides around the state, then around New England and New York. I entered the University of Maine’s forestry program, through which I found a summer job working on a hotshot crew out of McCall, Idaho, saving my country from forest fires and myself from conventionality.

The trail of the rugged individualist, however, turned out to be a difficult hike. While I might have loved working in the woods, I hated the class work and almost flunked out of college after my freshman year. Because I liked to read, I switched my major to English, but my grades remained low. I’d grown up in a small town where everyone knew me; I’d never learned how to meet new people. My mother was a controlling woman whose desire to protect her children kept me tied to her apron strings in ways I wouldn’t understand for fifty years. I watched former high school classmates join fraternities and sororities, disdaining them for being weak-spined conformists while at the same time envying their apparent happiness.

And then in October 1963, I watched President Kennedy descend in a helicopter’s whirlwind and walk bareheaded through the blowing dust of the track around the University of Maine’s football field like Apollo, his hair never moved. Standing in the shadow of the stands as October sunlight haloed JFK, his voice fanning my flicking dreams of fame, I decided to join the Peace Corps after graduation, then become a writer, with my picture on the cover of Time magazine for winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, dividing my time between Ernest Hemingway’s Paris, Jack Kerouac’s New York City, and an island off the coast of Maine.


A month later, I was leaving the Student Union when I heard a voice say, “Did you hear? Kennedy’s been shot!” I rushed back upstairs to a TV, arriving just in time to hear Walter Cronkite intone, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.”

I spent the weekend sitting in the dark of my dorm’s television room, watching the arrival of the plane from Dallas to Washington bearing the President’s dead body … the closed casket draped in black crepe lying in the East Room of the White House … the horse-drawn caisson carrying Kennedy’s casket down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol … gray figures marching to the steady beat of funeral drums into Arlington Cemetery.


After the burial service, I stuck a cigarette in the corner of my mouth and walked through the mist and fog and the almost empty campus. I tried to imagine myself as Kerouac’s Sal Paradise walking through a dying America.

Through the fog, I heard the voices the Kingston Trio, a popular folk group of the time, either their recording, or—more likely—a television retrospective on the Kennedy years:

Some to the rivers and some to the sea.


This is the new frontier.

This is the new frontier.

On the lawn by Sigma Nu Fraternity, the few remaining leaves of a maple tree hung like flags at half-mast.

I walked up a hill to Deering Hall, where I’d suffered through those forestry classes. I’d thought the one good thing to come out of that miserable year was the chance to fight forest fires out west, but now I realized how I’d never fit in. Most of the other guys on the crew were from rural southern or western towns and had never heard of Hemingway or Kerouac. Many were racists; most disliked the Kennedys. They could, however, play poker and the previous summer, I’d lost almost half the money I’d earned.

The mist turned to steady rain. I lit another cigarette and pulled the collar of my jacket around my neck. I suddenly knew I wouldn’t be going back to Idaho again. In another flash of awareness, I saw that in order to become a world-famous novelist, I was going to have to write a novel and I had no idea how to do it.

The cigarette tasted lousy and I flicked it on the sidewalk. I watched the red glow fade and smolder, along with my dreams of wandering the world, battling conformity, and winning the Nobel Prize.

I had not cried all weekend, but now I was sobbing. For the first time in my life, death was real.


Looking back, I can see myself crossing a different new frontier, the frontier of grief. And I think it’s these moments of grief—whether they be the Kennedy Assassination, the Great Depression, or our own personal tragedies—that define us.

So, how did Kennedy’s assassination define me?

I became cynical about politics and “great” men and women. I never joined the Peace Corps, never again looked to a political figure for any kind of guidance on how to live my life. Instead, I’ve found my inspiration from literature, philosophy, and spirituality. But even here, I’m suspicious of literary or spiritual gurus.

After three years of looking for adventure, I began looking for security, which at first, I thought meant love. A year after the assassination, I was engaged, and I married two days after graduating from college. In retrospect, it was a mistake to equate security and love. The marriage ended. But through a happy second marriage I learned love is its own adventure, more important to the world—my world anyway—than having one’s picture on a magazine or owning three houses around the globe.

And how will Coronavirus define my grandchildren? I don’t know how they will be scarred. They may become hypochondriacs, isolated behind their electronic devices, or huggers working to bring about a socialist revolution. All I can do is surrender my fears for their future over to the God-of-my-not-understanding, hoping these kids will discover before I did how it is love which defines us more than any historical moment.

Playing COVID Ball

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Playing in the Woods Behind my House


When I was a kid, I used to play in woods behind my house. Seventy years later, I play in the woods behind my house.


My woods these days, operated by the Brunswick/Topsham Land Trust, encompass five miles of trails that wind through deep forest and Sandplain Grassland, along and across creeks and pools, past an active farm and a community garden. One trail leads to a stone quarry, another to a stone labyrinth.


Every now and then, I’ll reread one of Thomas Hardy’s novels—Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Return of the Native. What I especially like, because it’s so true for me, is that in his novels the setting is a living character more than an inert backdrop.


For me, the woods are feminine. I understand why nature is called Mother. Entering the vaginate opening to a woodland trail is for me both sacred and sensual. I feel embraced by silence and the fecund smells of pulsating life.


Two years ago, one late afternoon, I had just finished walking the labyrinth in the woods, when a young man and woman came down the path. He carried several cameras and she was dressed in some kind of long, flowing dress, not something you usually see in the Maine woods.

He said hello, and then walked past me, ignoring the labyrinth itself to the stones in the center. “Yeah, these will be great.”

He helped her stand on one of the stones and began taking pictures. I walked away but as the trail turned, I looked back to see her thrust a leg out from the dress. When the trail turned again, I looked back through the woods to see a naked back and the dress down to her waist. Fighting the urge to remain, I kept walking but couldn’t resist one final last glance back to behold her standing nude on top of the stone bench.


Two monarch butterflies are playing tag in the blueberry bushes and the bracken on Sandplain Grassland. I’d never paid much attention to bracken until after Mary Lee and I hiked St. Cuthbert’s Way in Scotland and England. There these ferns grow tall and thick and as we hiked through, we talked about that scene involving a phallic sword in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd where Bathsheba Everdeen meets Sargent Troy in a hollow surrounded by bracken. Then, when we returned to Maine and walked these trails, I noticed all kinds of the stuff (bracken, not swords).


Looking over the bracken and blueberries, I see the sprawling brick building where I taught for my last two years as a high school English teacher. If I look closely I can see myself looking out the window of my classroom to where I’m standing now, wondering what it would be like to be here, looking back at the high school. Our eyes meet. Mr. Wile tells me how he envies my freedom to be able to walk these trails on a Thursday morning; I tell him how proud I am that he’s a teacher.


The B/T Land Trust maintains a number of bridges in these woods. Perhaps because of having been a teacher for forty-five years in high school, college, adult ed programs, homeless shelters, and churches, I find bridges represent what teaching is all about: providing a way for someone to cross from where they are to where they want or need to be.


As much people seem to want to complicate my job, teaching for me has always been simply me saying to others, “See that? Isn’t that neat?”

And when I see the eyes light up, or someone says, “Yes! I get it. It is neat!” the feeling I get is right up there with sex.


Part of the trail loop behind the high school is used for cross country meets and in the years B.C. (Before COVID) someone spray-painted the roots across the trail every autumn, making them easier to see to avoid turning an ankle.


Roots fascinate me, especially the mycelium, the underground fungus network that enables trees to increase their functional root surface so they can take in twice the nutrients they could with just their roots alone. The fungus not only penetrates and envelops the tree’s roots, but also allows its web to roam through the surrounding forest floor, connect with other trees’ fungal partners and roots. A network is created, and now it’s easy for the trees to exchange vital nutrients and even information.

Although I don’t much like to think of myself as a fungus, it’s another good image of what teachers do.


Crystal Springs Farm trails have no grand vistas, no purple mountains’ majesty, no waves crashing upon rugged rocks. The beauty here is subtle and often partially hidden under branches and bracken: lady slippers, star flowers, violets. It’s a delicate beauty, reminding me how delicate and beautiful life itself is.


And often overshadowed by death. Sometimes, when I walk in the woods after a storm, I will find a tree blown down across the trail. Fallen trees, especially large fallen trees, fill me with awe. These trees are usually a hundred or so years old and they leave an emptiness that hasn’t been there for a century. I think of the trees that have fallen across my paths through the years—plans that have blown down, a marriage that rotted and died, a daughter struck down before she’d fully grown, and the emptiness I still feel.


Many of the dead and dying tree trunks are split and broken in strange and grotesque and even beautiful ways. Not unlike some of broken people I know who are among the most beautiful people I’ve ever met.


But if life itself in these woods is delicate, the desire for new life here is robust. In a matter of weeks, new growth replaces the emptiness in the forest after a tree goes, and when a tree falls across the path blocking my way, it doesn’t take long for another path to develop around it. I’ve been responsible for some of those new paths, just as I’ve had to carve out other new paths in my life around downed dreams and broken relationships. All of which have led to me to where I am now, and for which I give thanks.


“… if nature’s cruelties know no limits,

neither do the boundaries of its grace.”— Laurie-Anne Bosselaar


Most of my walks begin or end at a pond between where I live and the entrance to the B/T Land Trust Trails. I don’t think anything so makes me aware of the rhythm of shifting seasons as this pond: peepers here in the spring, ducks in early summer, mud and discarded toys in late summer, variegated foliage and yellowed grasses in the fall, and a white expanse of the snow in the winter. From tadpoles to broad tailed hawks and blue herons, from green buds to orange and red leaves, from kids (and at least one adult I know) sailing pieces of wood on its waters to kids (and at least one adult) making snow angels on its ice, this pond sings of both change and continuity.


Soapbox time: We have a lot to learn from trees and roots and the mycelia, ponds and mud and grasses and wildlife. In the face of the rampant individualism that’s scaring the hell out of me these days, I think the world needs a new and deeper sense of connectedness. I don’t reject either the special gifts or the unique spiritual journeys of each person, but I’d love to see each of us, each “I,” dive into the very roots of our being—dive down into the ground to the point where our trunk spreads its roots organically into the branching mycelium network of “We.”


For over thirty years, one of my favorite writing assignments has been to ask people to describe their querencia, a Spanish word meaning the place from where you draw your strength; where you feel at home; the place where you are your most authentic self.

            I’ve told you mine. What’s yours?

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Creeping Along

Looking Down from Masada 


Recently, in an email from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, the Episcopal monastery with whom Mary Lee and I are affiliated, I read,

The true pilgrim who has found the way says in his thankful heart, “I will run when I can, when I cannot run I will go, and when I cannot go, I will creep.” George Congreve, SSJE (1835-1918).

Shivers snaked down my bent spine. Just a few nights earlier, I had dreamed that I was crawling up the side of a highway in the breakdown lane, traffic whizzing by me to my left, and a drop-off of several thousand feet to my right. Petrified with fear, I inched my way upward. Creeping, if you will.

I have a friend who believes that coincidences are how God speaks to us. I’m not sure about that, but I have read a bit about psychologist Carl Jung’s theory that dreams work to integrate our subconscious and conscious lives, help to heal us, revealing, if not the Holy, at least what it means to be more whole.

Mandala by Carl Jung. Jung believed that creating mandalas offers a “safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness.”

Back in 1997 Mary Lee and I visited the ancient fortress of Masada situated on a tabletop plateau some 1300 feet above the Dead Sea in southern Israel’s Judean Desert. It’s a kind of holy site—at least to the Israeli army—because during the first Jewish-Roman war from 73-74 CE, Roman troops lay siege to the fort, which ended a year later when 960 Jewish troops committed suicide. The sides of the plateau are almost shear. (It took a year for the Romans to construct a ramp up to the fortress.) We took a cable car almost to the top, which, for someone like me who’s terrified by heights, was bad enough, but notice I said almost to the top. When you exit the cable car, you still have to walk to the top up some narrow steps hugging the side of the mountain. (Just thinking back on them makes my legs shake.)

No way could I walk up them. So I crawled. Two hours later, I returned to the cable car the same way, except I crept down backwards. I didn’t care how long it took or what the hell I looked like.

And for me, who’s spent much of his life concerned with how other people see me, that shows just how afraid I was. Like a lot of people, I was raised to think that creeping and crawling are to be avoided. Only insects, snakes (remember that in the Bible the serpent didn’t slither until God cursed him), and cowards crawl. The only ones who creep are, well, creeps, a word which originally referred to someone you couldn’t trust, a sneak.

But I recalled that in my dream, as I crawled I was totally focused, determined. Scared as hell, but resolved to get to my destination. Which reminded me of reading from the journals of the writer John Cheever (and I can’t find the passage, so you’ll have to take my word for it), that just days before he died of kidney cancer, he crawled up the stairs to his office so he could do his daily writing. And of hearing that the singer Johnny Cash, who not long before he died of respiratory failure brought on by diabetes, cut a track for a song where the engineer had to stop the recording at the end of each line until the singer could get his breath.

I’m sure this is what Brother George Congreve, SSJE, was talking about: persistently following your path, your “way,” at whatever speed you can, even if you’re dying, or as in my dream, you’re in the breakdown lane with cars whizzing by you.

But you don’t need to be dying to take advantage of creeping. I’ve written several times in these blogs about how upset I got when I was hiking and when someone would pass me, especially if that someone looked older than I was. Eventually, however, I discovered that I could actually cover more miles if I slowed down and paced myself, instead of walking as fast as I could, wearing myself out, and needing to stop and rest. I was also less inclined to pull a muscle or strain a tendon. Most important, If I wasn’t pushing myself—head down, body aching—I saw more and enjoyed more of what I saw.

These days, I’m going even slower, working on taking my walks one step at a time, just focusing on the next step. And the next… the next … the next…  It’s a good exercise in living in the moment, which is not only how I’m trying to walk, but how I’m trying to live in these days of Corona Crud. I have no idea when all the restrictions will be lifted, I have no idea who will win the Presidential election or if the result will make any difference. But I can creep along, take one step at a time, and enjoy the view, whether of a stand of pine trees or one of my grandchildren standing on a rock by the ocean.

Grandson John, complete with mask

Now, in my dream, my destination as I crawled up the side of that highway was a big black motorcycle. What I found waiting for me, however, were two pink and white tricycles.

What the hell was going on there? I’ve never wanted a motorcycle; I think I’ve been on one once in my life. But when I was growing up, motorcycles were what rebels like James Dean and Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones rode—real men who smoked Marlboro cigarettes, and thumbed their noses at conventionality. I think I’ve always associated motorcycles with freedom, independence: values I’ve cherished, especially in my younger days.

On the other hand, tricycles are what my grandchildren have just given up for their first bicycles. Reminding me that I’ve also always thought of creeping and crawling as what babies do. These actions are among our first movements, and most of what I’ve read says creeping and crawling are good for babies. Pediatricians tell us that crawling helps develop and enhance balance, vision, and spatial awareness. I guess crawling also helps connect both sides of the brain.

So perhaps my needs these days have less to do with being independent than with being more whole, enjoying what time I have left in as many ways as possible. And the fact that there were two tricycles in my dream makes me wonder if part of being more whole involves recognizing my need for other people, something I’ve been thinking a lot about in these days of enforced isolation.

Not to mention how intense, even angry, people look on their motorcycles, and how much babies seem to enjoy creeping along.

Boy, would I like to have some of that joy these days.

And maybe that’s what I can learn from my, excuse the expression, “creepy dream.” That in the midst of the fear, whether it’s the fear of being run over by whizzing traffic or of falling off the side of a mountain, creeping along, even as my body breaks down, focusing on just the next movement, can lead not to some macho feeling of “being free,” but to the childhood joy of  simply being.

About ready to give these away.

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A Few Thoughts on Nostalgia



“Experience is not what happens to you, it is what you do with what happened to you.”

—Aldous Huxley


Like many of us geriatrics, I get a lot of email or Facebook posts that draw me back to my youth: photos of Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe, cars with fins, unfiltered Camel cigarettes… Or lists of phrases: “Don’t touch that dial,” “Carbon copy,” “You sound like a broken record”; hairstyles: beehives, pageboys and the D.A.; clothing: rolled tee-shirts and jeans, thin neckties, fedoras, poodle skirts, saddle shoes and pedal pushers. I belong to a Facebook group dedicated to sharing memories of my old hometown. Posts begin: “Does anyone remember (insert teacher or local character, restaurant or dance hall), to which anywhere from 5 to 50 people will share reminiscences.


All of which often evoke in me the emotion psychologists call “nostalgia,” usually defined as the warm feeling we have when we recall fond memories from our pasts. (The word comes from the Latin, meaning “a return home.”)

As with most of my emotions, nostalgia can help me or hinder me, depending on how I handle it.

Nostalgia is a common emotion. According to an online article in the Huffington Post, the average person engages in some kind of nostalgia once a week. People tend to become more nostalgic, the article continues, not only as, like me, they age, but also during times of transition, when one way of life is ending and the next hasn’t begun. I can see that. I used to teach high school seniors and invariably, during the last weeks of May, as their high school years were ending, I would hear them reminiscing, not as I had expected, about their high school years, but about their elementary and middle school years. They often talked about eighth grade, which, again, is a transition year for many students.

So, I wonder if nostalgia isn’t a form of grieving, sort of like the way people talk about someone at their funeral. Both nostalgia and grief show love, keep us connected, not only with the person or place we’ve lost, but with each other. And that’s healthy.

Nostalgia, however, can also be a form of resentment. Something, we feel, is wrong in our lives so we long for the days when whatever that something wrong is simply wasn’t there. This can lead to a nostalgia looks back to a particular time as some golden age, when, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, “all the women were strong, all the men were good-looking, and all the children were above average.” In Bill Bryson’s book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, he notes that in a survey, Americans picked 1957 as the best time in history to be alive, ignoring the fear that swept this country when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, or the racial unrest that resulted in President Eisenhower’s ordering federal troops to enforce integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, or the air raid drills as schools “prepared” for the nuclear attack we kids thought could happen at any time. If you were black, gay, or even female, I can think of far better times to be alive than 1957.

Like today, for example.

I find what I call Golden Age Nostalgia irritating, I think because for years, I saw my 1950’s childhood the same way, filled with the smells of home baked bread and the sounds of laughter. Then, after a divorce and struggles to overcome the emotional effects of the death of my daughter led me to several 12-step programs, I started to see how much of my childhood I had repressed, even denied, which led me to repress or deny any kind of nostalgia.

Lately, though, having gained insights into why shame has been the driving force in my life, why I react as I do to confrontation, authority, and strong women, I can also see that as a child I was loved, I was protected, and I was more often than not happy. And It’s okay to feel nostalgic for those times.


Actually, it’s better than okay. I’m coming to see that nostalgia—usually thought of as being concerned with the past—can provide strength for the future. Nostalgia for my childhood gives me hope that not only my grandchildren, but all the children of this country will overcome this turbulent time’s challenges. While I’m certainly not nostalgic about my daughter’s death, the warm memories I have of her eighteen years of life—her compassion, her creativity, her joy—continue to inspire me. And if I can live happily for the most part after her death, I can live for the most part happily in this time of turmoil and uncertainty. If I can face her death, I can face my own.

Shut up at home, aging, I find myself growing more nostalgic about my past pilgrimages. This, too, I think is helpful. One of the main reasons—perhaps the main reason—for making a pilgrimage is to return home with new awareness and then share it. As Phillip Cousineau, whom I’ve been quoting now for almost five years in this blog, writes, “…you must share whatever wisdom you have been blessed with on your journey with those who are about to set out on their own journey.” And for me, that includes reminding myself what I’ve learned on my pilgrimages about living in liminal space, asking for help, facing the unknown, adapting to the situation, and living in the moment.


But I still need to be careful, especially during these days of Coronic uncertainty. My temptation—and I’m not alone; I hear it a lot—is to want things to get back to “normal.” Everything I know about history tells me that this isn’t going to happen. No matter what transpires with this disease or other “dis-eases” such as climate change, violations of human rights, and gun violence, there will be no return to “normal,” as we once knew it. And nostalgia won’t change that. All it can do is make us angry and resentful.

Or it can help us change.

The key for me, as one of my 12-step daily readings puts it, is to be able “to look back without staring.” Going back, for example, to 1957 to enjoy a time when, if the times weren’t actually better, I was young and healthy and full of plans for the future—to be able to look at that, take what I can, and leave the rest behind along with tailfins and DA haircuts, violence and bigotry.

Those are “normals” I can live without.



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