Leaving “the Little Lightless Caverns”


I waste too much time in the little lightless caverns of my own mind.”

—Christian Wiman


            My first wife used to say to me, “Rick, you think too much.”

            It pains me to say it, but she was right. I can turn anything into a problem to be solved: what I want for breakfast, what clothes I want to wear for the day (I’m retired, for godssake, who cares what I wear?), where I want to go for a morning walk, whether I want to go first to the grocery store and then to the hardware store (well, the grocery store is closer and if I get delayed there, I can always wait until tomorrow to do the hardware store) or go first to the hardware story and then to the grocery store (but because the grocery store is closer, I need to get the refrigerated items home before they spoil).

            So that by lunchtime I’m tired out (and then do I want a nap or should I read?).

            Minor stuff, I know, but as I look back at my life, I see that overthinking has caused me and those around me serious problems. Part of the reason I almost flunked out of college was because I waffled about not only what career path to follow, but also whether I wanted to join a fraternity, ask Ginny out or Pat, hang out with jocks or artsy types, take a year off.

            In later years, I agonized over if I should get married, go to graduate school, take a college or a high school teaching job, join a church (what denomination?), join the Rotary, or tell my first wife I was unhappy in our marriage.

            After my daughter died, my mind became a prison. When all my efforts to understand why a previously healthy and happy 18-year-old should suddenly die from a rare cancer—radon in our water supply, McDonald’s cutting down rain forests, accident, fate, God wanting “another angel in heaven,”(all reasons people gave me)—failed, I decided I had to be the one to blame, either because Laurie’s mother and I divorced or because we didn’t divorce soon enough. For several years, the only relief I could find was through alcohol and anger, both of which threatened not only my life but the lives of those close to me.

            As I’ve written before in these blogs, I credit meditation with first helping me see the destructive nature of thoughts and to unload much of my anger and shame—give it to God, as one of my first mentors suggested.

But meditation can become its own “little lightless cavern,” as poet Christian Wiman calls his mind: a place to escape an argument or a fear or a resentment by retreating into old patterns of thinking. (What will I have for breakfast, what shall I wear today…)

            So, what else has helped?

            Seeing myself as the Geriatric Pilgrim has become more than a literary conceit. Looking at life as a pilgrimage has taught me to be curious, to look for surprises, to live without planning every single detail, to put myself in uncomfortable situations (even if it’s just going for a walk and having no destination or closing my eyes before grabbing a shirt to wear for the day). I’ve learned to embrace the unknown—including a Higher Power totally outside my understanding, and to look for evidence of that Higher Power—what I would call grace—all around me.

            A pilgrimage always involves some type of movement, whether it’s walking Saint Cuthbert’s Way or walking downtown. Despite having grown up playing sports, I’ve never paid more attention than I do these days to movement. Yes, regular exercise has long been known to improve and maintain key aspects of cognitive function such as attention, learning, and memory, but neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert posits that our brains evolved, not to think or feel, but to produce adaptable and complex movements. He points out that it’s a lot easier to create a computer that thinks than to create a computer which can move anything like we do. (If you’d like to learn more see https://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_wolpert_the_real_reason_for_brains.)

For the last year and a half, I’ve been practicing the Feldenkrais Method of exercise therapy, learning to reorganize connections between the brain and body, which has improved both the way I move and the way I think, helping me pay less attention to my mind and more attention to my heart and my gut—my instincts.

            The slogans of Al Anon, the 12-step program for families and friends of alcoholics, have become my roadmap on this pilgrimage out of the caverns of my mind. When I first started attending meetings and saw slogans set out on the floor, I thought, “God, how simplistic!” Another example of how thinking can mislead me. Try following a few of these slogans and see how simple they are. To give just one example, let’s look at “One Day at a Time.”

            What’s so hard about that? Well, for someone like me—and, I find, many people who’ve grown up in alcoholic families, who continually try to anticipate and resolve every problem they think they may encounter, attempting to make decisions on information they don’t have—it’s damn hard. Instead of responding to what’s in front of me, both the challenges and the gifts that come my way, I’m obsessing about all the possibilities (most of them bad) that might befall me, even though, looking back over the almost 80 years of my life, I can say that not once did any of this preparation spare me a single moment of pain. In fact, it just lengthened my suffering.

            Still, at my age, it’s hard for me not to think about—which in my case means understand, anticipant, awfulize—my death. It was helpful this week to hear a podcast in which Ariel Burger, protégé and friend of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel, talk about Wiesel’s teaching that there are no answers to life’s big questions, only responses.

            So, I’m trying to respond to these questions by breaking them into small daily tasks. Instead of trying to answer the question, how can my grandchildren survive in a world that seems to be hurtling toward destruction, I focus what I can do with them today. If I’m worried about the Supreme Court or the swelling in my jaw, what can I do about either one today? Call my senator? Pop into the walk-in clinic (which I did this weekend. It’s “an obstructed parotid gland”)? Then it’s time to go for a walk, pick up a banjo, write a poem or a blog. Get out of my head.

            In other words, as one of the AA’s oldest slogans puts it, “Move a muscle, change a thought.”

            And leave a little lightless cavern.

# #

A Walk in the Rain


I haven’t taken a walk in the rain for years, but after sitting in front of a computer screen for what seems like a week, I need some air. Putting on my rain gear—jackets, pants, and boots—I feel old, stiff, bent over. As dreary as Maine in mud season on a rainy day.

I used to walk in the rain a lot, especially during what I refer to as “my other life.” I did it to escape a failing marriage, which I remember as one rainy day after another anyway. I walked in the woods and along the rocky ocean shores in Down east Maine, feeling the rain and fog against my face, smelling the sea, and hearing the loons’ mournful cry out of the fog, “ooh, ooh, oooooh.” Wet rocks glistened, as if they were crying, and more than once I slipped or fell trying to walk on wet seaweed. All of which mirrored how I felt about my life.

I remember my tears as I walked in the rain, usually head down, hunched over, my hands deep in my pockets, back to the Ronald McDonald House from the hospital where my daughter lay dying of cancer, the cold wind off the river blowing pellets of fear into my heart.

But there’s no ocean shore here, no river, just a housing development and a lot of puddles. As I walk out the door and into the street, reflections of the trees overhead in these puddles double the number of branches so that I feel surrounded by trees, lost in trees above and below me. It’s a strange sensation, but not at all an unpleasant one, a disappearing into the landscape, and I find myself wondering if, when I die, death isn’t going to be something like this. If it is, I think, it won’t be so bad.

Earlier in the day, it rained hard, but now the rain is light, tap-dancing on the hood of my raincoat. I remember Gene Kelly, tap-dancing and singing “Singing in the Rain,” the first movie I think I ever saw in a drive-In theater. This would have been in the early to mid 1950s, and I’m pretty sure the local drive-in had just opened. My parents bundled us three kids into our pjs and the back seat of our 1948 Ford to see what I later studied in a film class as the quintessential movie musical. What I recall most clearly is, as Kelly splashed through the puddles crooning “dancin’ and singin’ in the rain,” (check the scene out on YouTube; I guarantee you’ll feel better), my father muttering, “damn fool’ll probably be in bed for week with pneumonia.”

I start thinking of other rain-songs. When I first began paying attention to music on the radio, there was Johnny Raye, a pre-Elvis teenage heartthrob, singing “Just Walkin’ in the Rain.” A line from a Sinatra ballad comes drizzling down from the clouds: “Here’s that rainy day they told me about…” And when I was in high school, I remember the Everly Brothers singing, “I do my Cryin’ in the Rain.”

The next thing I know, I’m on my knees in wet dirt, cutting beet greens in the rain as it beats a rock & roll rhythm on my yellow rubber slicker. (And were they hot!) God, this memory must be from sixty years ago. For four summers, I worked in a market garden with some high school buddies for a guy who was one of the first in the area to package vegetables for local supermarkets. I still have a faint scar on my left index finger from when my wet knife slipped and added some bloody protein to the beet greens. Still, if the rain kept up and we were lucky, we’d get to work inside, washing greens and flirting with the girls who packaged them, while we listened to the Everly Brothers on a small radio on a shelf in the corner.

Not for the first time, I realize that one of those workdays in the garden would kill me now—that it’s all I can do to kneel and get up, let alone do any work on my knees.

Still, after heart surgery, I’m happy to be able to walk at all.

I decide to cut across behind the houses to the power line, where the remaining patches of ice glisten in last year’s wet leaves.

I head into the woods, still thinking about rain songs (I can’t remember what day of the week it is, but I can remember songs): “Rain Drops,” by Dee Clark. “A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall,” by Bob Dylan. “Rainy Days and Mondays,” by the Carpenters. “Have you ever seen the Rain,” by Credence Clearwater Revival.

There’s also Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women,” but that’s about smoking pot. Which makes me wonder if I’m sorry never to have smoked the stuff. Of course, I can do it legally now. There’s a cannabis dispensary just up the street. But the last thing an addictive personality like mine needs is something else to get hooked on. I’ll stick to chocolate. Come to think of it, a cup of hot chocolate would be good when I get home.

It’s raining harder now, more of a tattoo than a tap-dance. I tighten my hood and think back twenty-some years to when Mary Lee and I were in Edinburgh, Scotland in a driving rain, attending the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the annual performance of military bands on the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. Even under a downpour, the place was packed, all of us sitting in our rain gear, peering down at the soldiers who looked like performing undersea creatures in kilts. Despite the rain—or maybe being drenched seemed to make us all feel a little closer to each other, laugh a little more—it was a great evening, one of those joyful times that makes me grateful for the gift of life, despite—or again, maybe because of—the various hardships and disappointments I’ve experienced.

I follow a slippery path up a rise and through the trees to a pond, dimpled today by the rain. The ice is gone, and at the further end, I hear the first wood-frogs of the spring, their breeding calls sounding like ducks quacking. “Winter is over,” they (sort of) sing, “time to make a little love!”

Mmmm. I suddenly feel younger. I start planning this weekend’s date night with my wife.

Somewhere, off to my right, a woodpecker adds more rhythm to the day. Which may mean the grubs and other insects are out or that it, too, is looking for a mate. Either way, another sign of spring.

The rain is letting up, the sky is clearing, and I find myself disappointed. Yes, rain is traditionally associated with crying and sadness, but I feel watered, rejuvenated, if you will, like a withered plant who’s just been tended to.

I head for home, more—do I dare say it?—spring in my step.

# #

Navigating the Death of an Ex

Several years after her death, I visited the grave sites of my ex and our daughter


I have been with my parents during their final hours. I have witnessed my daughter take her last tortured breaths. I am watching old friends die almost monthly. Still, I’ve never felt such a mix of emotions as I did when I stumbled across my ex-wife’s obituary in the newspaper.

Happily remarried for thirty years, I’d had no contact with her since our daughter’s death four years after the divorce. Since that time, I seldom thought of my first marriage except as a twenty-year mistake, most of the mistakes being hers.

But now I felt weak. I found myself thinking, if only we’d stayed in our first house instead of moving back to her hometown, we might have made the marriage work. If only we’d seen a marriage counselor. If only I’d gone for a PhD and become a college professor instead of remaining a high school English teacher…

Then I thought, if my ex and I had stayed married, I wouldn’t be with Mary Lee, who showed me what marriage can be, who was the reason I didn’t drink myself to death when Laurie died, who makes me believe God really does exist. There’s no way I could be happier than I am now.

For weeks, I felt like a racquetball, caroming off walls of shock, relief, regret, and gratitude.

But there was no one to talk with about how I felt. No action I could take. When my mother and father died, my brother, sister, and I shared memories. We purchased another stone for the family cemetery to decorate on Memorial Day. After Laurie died, I found groups like Compassionate Friends with whom I could talk. I made contributions for cancer research. I counseled other grieving parents.

But I couldn’t put a memorial stone for my ex-wife in our family lot. And while Mary Lee was sympathetic—she’d spent an afternoon listening to a friend describe her conflicted feelings after her ex died—I couldn’t talk to her about the “if onlys” and the “what ifs” of my first marriage, the experiences only my ex and I shared, especially with our daughter. I was now the only one alive to remember Laurie’s first steps as she stumbled between her mother and me, or my sitting with her mother during our daughter’s first piano recital, or the three of us decorating the Christmas tree.

First steps.

Add loneliness to the emotional cesspool in which I swam.

Then, during a meeting of the 12-step program to which I belong, when my emotions about my ex-wife’s death swarmed like black flies, I shared that when I’d gone away to college, I anticipated getting away from my dysfunctional family, but that my mother’s shame and my father’s angry resentments had come with me. My grades were lousy. I sat alone in the back of the college den, bitterly envious of the laughing fraternity brothers and sorority sisters I saw at the front tables yet afraid to make conversation with anyone around me for fear they would reject me for being the loser I thought I was.

Driving home after the meeting, I realized how being a child of alcoholism had drawn me into marrying the only child from a closely knit family with strong Yankee values who seemed confident and strong, who, I thought, would offer me the stability I craved.

 I started to realize how being that child had also contributed to the breakup of my marriage. How, to keep feeling safe and secure, I never expressed any of my own needs. How I used sarcasm or said, “I’m sorry” without meaning it to avoid arguments. How I worked long hours at school to gain respect from my students and to avoid problems at home. How I built up resentments like building blocks until they finally came crashing down around us.

I found myself feeling not only more compassion for my ex, but also for the marriage itself. We did remain married for twenty years. At least ten of them were pretty good. Most important, we created an intelligent, beautiful, compassionate daughter, who, although she died at eighteen, continues to inspire me every day. There’s no way in the world I could wish Laurie had never happened.

With the help of my 12-step sponsor, I began to see the best way—maybe the only way—for me to grieve my ex’s death was to honor the good times in our marriage and learn from the mistakes I made and not repeat them.

I wrote a letter to my sarcasm, thanking him for helping me get through some ugly times, but saying his services were no longer needed and it was time for him to retire to a condo in Florida.

I worked to become more honest, more open in my relationships with others. Probably because of our struggles to understand each other after Laurie’s death, Mary Lee and I had usually been able to speak openly with each other, but I made even more of an effort. With other people, I tried to listen more, wait (a 12-step acronym, by the way, for “Why Am I Talking?) before reacting, and focus on “I” statements—“I feel…” “I see it this way…”—rather than “you” statements—“You’re wrong…” “You don’t understand…” “You need to …”—when I did respond. (Which has also helped me talk with Mary Lee, come to think of it.)

Since the advent of COVID—and now with the events in Ukraine—I’m learning another lesson from my first marriage. I was drawn to my ex because she made me feel strong and secure. As she and I discovered, however, the world is not a safe place: I brought my dysfunctional family behavior into our marriage; both she and I underwent major surgeries; our daughter died of a rare cancer. Mary Lee and I are in our seventies and although we’re vaccinated and still mask, we’re at risk. I’ve had more surgery; she’s prone to pneumonia. I’m watching more and more friends die from other causes—cancer of the jaw, Parkinson’s, heart disease—and I find myself wanting to hunker down, stay home, or perhaps sell our house and move into a continuing care facility as some other friends are doing because they feel they’ll have more security.

But looking at the failure of my first marriage helps me see real strength comes not from trying to avoid risk, but from living with curiosity, honesty, and love, both for my family and for myself.

Which is why at the beginning of last summer, Mary Lee and I found a window between the waves of pandemic to take a European cruise. I’ve called a contractor to do some remodeling of our house. We both volunteered to facilitate adult programs.

On the Rhine

And in the years to come? I can’t know, of course. I expect that my family’s history of heart disease and cancer will hunt me down. Grieving my ex-wife’s death, however, has helped me see that I can’t let the desire for stability dictate the way I live my life.

Been there. Done that. Didn’t work.

# #

Winter Memories

1949 view of Yarmouth, Maine (from a Yarmouth Historical Society Calendar)


I’m fascinated by memory. Not so much as to what it is—something to do with reactivating connections between different parts of the brain that were active at some previous time in my life—as to how it works, especially as to why as I get older, I can remember scenes from my childhood more clearly than I can recall what I had for breakfast yesterday.

I know my memories are triggered by those sights, sounds, smells, and tastes through which I perceive the world. For example, last week we had an old fashioned “blizzard,” (as opposed to the rain/sleet/snow mess we usually get nowadays) and as I sat at my desk listening to wind roaring like the ocean, and looked out at the snow slanting through the fir trees behind our house and swirling in great clouds off my neighbor’s roof across the street, I was transported back to similar sounds and sights as I lay in my bed with the covers pulled up to my ears listening to George Hunter, “The Big Man from Freeport,” (“Well, good mornin’! This is an awful nice kind of a mornin’, ain’t it?”) give the no-school announcements on the radio. We had far fewer snow days back then because most kids lived within walking distance of school and what buses we did have never had to drive that far, so to have a snow day was a special occasion.

Not that I’d stay in bed any longer. A snow day just meant that much more time to play outside with my friends, building snow forts, having snowball fights, skating, and sledding. Last year’s Yarmouth Historical Calendar (that’s Yarmouth, Maine, for those of you reading this in other countries) has a picture taken in 1949 of what’s now called Marina Road, which shows the hill to the right where I remember sledding about that time. Today, trees dot that hill, making sledding impossible.

Marina Road, 1949 (YHS Calendar)
Marina Road, 2022

I have a vivid memory of walking home with some friends after sledding on that hill— the lights of town gilding the buildings in the late winter afternoon darkness—the vision of which somehow reminding me that last week, I read obituaries for two of my school classmates.

Of course, I don’t go running outside these days to play in the snow, but at some point during last week’s snowstorm, I did walk to the mailbox. What was unusual about that storm is that the temperature stayed around 20° instead of getting up into the 30°s as winter storms around here all seem to do in the 21st century, so that the crunch of snow and the cold wind that lifted the hood of my coat off my head and the tiny pellets of snow pricking my face reminded me of the chores I used to do , even on the worst of days: burning the trash in an oil drum behind our house, trying to strike a match with my numb fingers; and taking in the laundry from the clothesline with the clothes frozen solid on the line—trying to get those damned clothespins open and fold frozen pants into the clothes basket.

On my trip back from the mailbox I saw the crew that plows our drives and shovels our walkways arriving.

I seldom, if ever, see anyone plowing a driveway without thinking of my father shoveling our driveway—the slow, methodical way he would make squares in the snow with the edge of his coal shovel before digging in, as if he were cutting squares of cake. By the time I was old enough to help him, Dad had not only his own driveway to shovel, but also the wide walkway to the First Parish Church where, with three children to feed and clothe, he’d taken on a second job as sexton.

One Sunday after a snowstorm, he and I were shoveling out before the church service. I must have been about twelve and I’m sure I wasn’t happy about having to spend Sunday morning shoveling snow and then turning around and having to go to church. We reached the end of the walkway when we struck a ridge of ice under the snow, so that I hit my shovel and lost all the snow before I could lift it. In frustration, I drove the blade of the shovel again and again against the ice.

“Just drop your handle,” Dad said. In my memory, he’s still taller than I am, dressed in a topcoat and fedora.

I looked at him. “What?”

“Drop the handle of your shovel.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Look, just drop the handle!”

So, instead of lowering the handle to change the angle of the shovel’s blade the way he meant, I let go of the handle and watched it fall on the ground.

“You goddam fool,” my father said, in that cigarette-cured voice I can still hear thirty-seven years after his death.

I guess those who study memory and how it works don’t agree on this, but one article I read recently says that our brains don’t store memories, our brains are memories, are continually remaking themselves based on what we’ve experienced. And at the same time, the very act of remembering is also remaking our memories.

Take this last scene with my father, for example. A few years ago, when I was going to my first Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings and recalled that Sunday morning, I felt my father’s negativity and bitter sarcasm, re-experienced my shame for being “a goddamned fool,” shame that has been the driving force in my life. Dad was, I thought, probably hungover. Today, however, aware of his rootless, lonely childhood, and that we didn’t have enough money in those days for him to drink the way he did later in his life, feeling the love in the way he gripped my shoulder the day before he died and realizing I am now thirteen years older than he was that day, I see my father smiling as he looks at the snow shovel I’ve dropped on the church walk, hear “you goddamn fool,” as a term of endearment.

Is one of these memories more accurate than the other? Who knows? What interests me is what the way I’ve reinterpreted the story says about who I’ve become. Most of my memories lately tend toward the nostalgic, even idyllic. Especially toward those people, places, and things that have disappeared from my life. People like my parents and grandparents, places like sledding hills and clotheslines, things like snowstorms, even winters themselves, or at least the winters of my youth. They’re all gone and without memory to keep them part of me, I’d be a little less whole each year.

With these memories, however, which I continually rework, remake, augment, I feel myself becoming more whole as I age. I’m grateful and this gratitude colors, I’m sure, how I experience my past.

Best of all, I don’t have to go out into zero degree weather and bring in frozen laundry to do it.

# #

Clothes Make the Man


“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

                                                                        —Merle Johnson, paraphrasing Mark Twain


I’ve often said that if I were a prehistoric humanoid, I would have been the one to invent clothes, and very rarely does a Christmas go by without my asking for and receiving some new article of attire. This year was no different, and as I opened my present, I began thinking about how the clothes I’ve worn over the years have both reflected my self-image and in turn, shaped it.

My parents, of course, picked my first clothes. They had grown up poor, in what today we call “dysfunctional” families, spending their lives striving to become part of the great American Middle Class. The photograph above shows me at around five years old, probably before heading to church. I suppose I’m cute (although I think I look more like a midget), but I’m also evidence of my parents’ early expectations for me to become an adult with a white-collar job.

Other than vinyl records, the money I earned in high school went towards clothing. Still under the influence of my parents, I was after the “Ivy-league” look: chino pants with a belt in the back, pin-striped shirts, and white or “dirty” (light brown) bucks. These clothes said not only was I going to college, but—far more important to me at the time—that I belonged to the in-crowd of athletes and cheerleaders, unlike my cousins who wore jeans, tee-shirts, and motorcycle boots.

I attended a private high school, but one to which the town had paid tuition until my senior year when it voted to build a public high school. In preparation for the following year when our school would become a private college preparatory facility, the headmaster required all male students to wear coats and ties. In addition, our new basketball coach required that during the season our team wear fedoras or wool alpine hats (mine, as I recall, was dark green, with a plume). I disliked both rules, until I discovered that when our team walked into another school’s gymnasium, the other team found us intimidating. I can’t prove clothing was why we won the Western Maine Basketball Championship, but I doubt if it hurt.

During my senior year, under the influence of a history teacher (referred to by some in town as “that commie in the high school”), I started questioning what he called “middle-class values.” I was also trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I spent hours in the guidance office looking at college catalogues. I still remember vividly coming across a colored catalogue. On the cover stood a man with six-foot wide shoulders and a thirty-inch waist, dressed in a red-checked flannel shirt, jeans, and work boots standing by a horse and an Irish setter looking out over a vast expanse of timber-covered mountains. Only after seeing myself in his place did I read the title of the catalogue, “Careers in Forestry.”

What a great way to thumb my nose at conventionality and broaden my shoulders at the same time! By the time I entered the forestry program at the University of Maine the following September, I’d bought six flannel shirts, three pairs of jeans, and a pair of moccasins. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a store that sold new shoulders.)

That I was more concerned with the clothes than with the career seems clear when I recall that even after switching my major from forestry to English, I wore the jeans and flannel shirts (none of which ever saw an iron) along with a corduroy sport coat with patches on the elbows. I remained damned if I was going to look like the frat boys and BMOCs in their chinos, sweaters, and penny-loafers.

As I wrote in the last blog, when I became a Graduate Assistant in English at the University of Vermont, I discovered the wonderful new world of academia—an inner sphere of the mind, yes, but also a world in which college professors commanded respect. They appeared (and it took me years to find out appearances can be deceiving) confident, in control. And no one demanded more respect than Stanley Bogart, the Chair of the English Department. Stan was maybe 5’ 6” tall, but I always felt I was looking up at him, primarily I think because he looked as if he’d stepped from a 1968 Esquire magazine: pastel, double-breasted sport coats with matching ties and pocket handkerchiefs or Nehru jackets (if you don’t remember them, look ‘em up), bell bottom pants, and boots with high heels.

When I began teaching at an area high school in the 70s, even as teachers began dressing more and more informally, I emulated Stan, which I found gave me the respect I craved and the confidence I lacked. Putting on one of my flashy sports coats, tying my tie in a Double Windsor, and pinning it with one of my dozen tie-tacks was like putting on a suit of armor before riding out to challenge the dark powers of ignorance.

Until I began to suffocate and left in the middle of the school year to move back to my hometown and marry another woman. I threw away all my ties (except the one I still keep for funerals), grew a beard, and became a “writer.” Still, I cultivated my image—dressed in tan chinos, denim shirts, and a sport coat made from firehose with something like twelve pockets (I still wear it)—that gave me the confidence to apply to an MFA program in creative writing.

When Mary Lee and I began traveling, I started making trips to L.L. Bean for cargo pants, shirts with sunblock, a travel vest, microfiber underwear, and hiking boots. They’re comfortable and they have pockets for all the crap I seem to need to carry, but they also help me see myself as a pilgrim, an adventurer. I often wear them around town or for a walk in the woods, imagining I’m trekking through Scotland or hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro instead of strolling past a duck pond or walking up Arrowhead Drive.

I’ve often come home from my travels with a tee-shirt or sweatshirt: mementos from the journey. Like ancient warriors who used to return with scalps or shrunken heads of their enemies tied around their necks, I wear shirts from “Rick’s Café” in Key West, or “Pike Place Fish” in Seattle when I exercise; they make me proud of my accomplishments and give me more energy.

After buying a travel vest, I bought others: fleece, down, woolen, quilted… They not only have pockets, but they give me all kinds of arm room. Still, if I’m honest, I have to say that my favorites are a vest made in Nepal by Tibetan refugees because I think it helps me meditate, and a leather vest that I wear to go with my fedora when I play the banjo in public.

Looking back over what I’ve written, I can see how clothes have often become costumes, as if I’m in a play—a way to act out my fantasies in a relatively harmless fashion. How clothes can be body masks to hide behind. How clothes give me the illusion of having control over my life.

All of which makes me wonder about this Christmas and the sweatpants and hooded sweatshirt I got.


Back Story

Stock photograph from the war I avoided.


For the last fifty years, back pain has been a constant in my life—through two marriages, six jobs, the deaths of my parents, a daughter, and many friends, and into retirement. I’ve had a back fusion, which laid me up for four months (and which did nothing), plus visits to chiropractors, orthopedists, and acupuncturists costing me thousands of dollars. (Ditto.)

It was my acupuncturist, however, who suggested a book to me on the psychology of back pain. I didn’t buy the author’s theory that anger is the cause of all back pain, but I did start a pilgrimage of sorts through my internal landscape of other half-buried emotions to see what I might unearth.

Linear person that I am, I went back to when the pain began.


In early March, 1968, I received my draft notice to report for an Army physical the following month. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The previous year, the number of U.S. Troops stationed in Vietnam had risen to 500,000 and there were calls for even more troops. The previous summer, I’d been notified that my military deferment for being married and for being a teacher had ended.

 Still, I’d ignored my new 1-A draft card. I was at the University of Vermont, entering my second semester as a Graduate Assistant in English, living comfortably with my wife in an apartment maybe a half-mile from the UVM campus. Academia had opened a wonderful new world for me, an inner world of the mind, removed from outside influences (like war), and I was focused on getting into a PhD program and becoming a college professor.

Then came the draft notice. I didn’t know what to do. One of my teaching-assistant colleagues told me he had contacts in Montreal, just 96 miles away, should I want to defect. I thought about it, but realized I was no conscientious objector; I just thought the war was stupid. My wife, whose cousin had just shipped out to Vietnam, seemed resigned to my going, saying she would move back to live with her parents in Maine and wait for me. (Thirty-five years after our divorce, I wonder if she wasn’t secretly looking forward to moving back in with her parents.)

Well, I decided if I must go, I’ll do it on my terms: I’ll enlist in the Navy, and since if I do that, I’ll have to serve for four years, I might as well become an officer. Which, as I write this, doesn’t make any sense, since, given my age of 25 and my academic background, I doubt I’d have seen combat and my Army tour of duty would have been for only two years. Still, two days after receiving my draft notice, I went down to the Navy recruiting office and signed up for officer’s candidate school. Which meant taking the Navy’s physical examination, which meant going to Springfield, Massachusetts the following weekend.


I recall that most of the men taking the physical were younger than I, of various ethnicities, dressed in everything from ripped jeans to hippie tie-dyes to one guy in a suit and tie. Hair length was even more varied. We were given lockers and told to strip to our underwear. I don’t remember all the various preliminary tests except for being so nervous I couldn’t pee in the cup. But I must have eventually because I wound up in a sort of gymnasium in my boxers. A deep voice told us drop our shorts and lean forward while some guys in uniforms went behind us shining flashlights up our asses.

Next, the voice told us to bend over and touch our toes. In the row in front of me was a guy in a back brace. He raised his hand, and the officer motioned for him to get out of line. He yelled, “Okay, anyone who can’t touch his toes because of a back problem, fall in over here!”

For the previous two weeks, I had thought and thought of ways to deal with my draft notice and had only become more and more confused. Now, without thinking, I followed the guy with the back brace to a room on the edge of the floor. Only after I was walking behind him did I realize what I was about to do and remember why I was going to do it.

When I was sixteen, I’d hurt my back in a high school physical education class. My mother drove me to the hospital for x-rays. A young man—probably some kind of intern or maybe a technician—came out to say that I’d broken my back. Of course, I was upset. The guy left, but then a few minutes later a doctor entered. No, he said, you haven’t broken your back, just bruised it. But, he continued, you have a deformity in your back that looks like it could be a break. He called it “Scheuermann’s Disease,” which I’ve since found is a curvature in the middle of the back caused by period of accelerated growth (Two years earlier, I’d grown four inches in a year). My Scheuermann’s was especially pronounced, with two vertebrae jutting noticeably from my spine.

Remember, said the doctor, if you’re ever in an automobile accident it will look like you have a broken back.

After the bruising went away, I forgot all about Scheuermann and his disease. I played basketball and fought forest fires and did every physical activity I wanted to with no pain whatsoever. Nine years later, however, walking behind this guy in a back brace, it all came back to me, so that when I sat down in that room by a desk with another military type, I was ready. Did I have a history of back problems? Yes, ever since I was sixteen. Did it keep me from physical activity? Yes (there was one exercise on the obstacle course that we had when I was in the forest service that I thought I couldn’t do because I couldn’t bend all the way back and touch my head to the ground behind me. Of course, few other guys could do that one, either.) Was I experiencing pain right now? Yes. (And as I sat there, my lower back really did hurt.)

Okay, son, come back here next week and we’ll take some x-rays.

A month after those x-rays, I received notice that my military status had changed from 1-A to 1-Y, which meant qualified only in time of national emergency.

I was home free.


Except it’s been since that time that I’ve had back problems.

So, is the pain due to guilt? Recently, at a men’s group I belong to, several Vietnam vets were reminiscing, and I came home with my back throbbing. Somewhere, I’d heard the term “survivor guilt.” Going to my trusted Wikipedia, I read, “Survivor guilt … occurs when a person believes they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic or tragic event when others did not, often feeling self-guilt.”

Could be. The Vietnam war killed two of my classmates in combat, caused a friend to suffer years of depression, another friend to become an alcoholic, and a third to die from cancer caused by the defoliant Agent Orange.

One of my friends during his tour in Vietnam. RIP, Scott.

In many cases of survivor guilt, the article goes on to say, survivors spend a lifetime compensating for the guilt of having survived by doing good things. That military physical certainly changed my goals and values. I returned to the University of Vermont less interested in academics and more interested in helping others. And frankly, I think I did more good in the next two years than I would have sitting at a desk typing Army reports or standing on the bridge of a destroyer. Instead of becoming a college professor, I taught high school students of all backgrounds, some of whom I’ve stayed in contact with for over forty years. I became an active member of a church community, working with youth groups and with the homeless.

All of which I’ve been telling my back.

Does it help? Has the pain gone away?

Yes and no. The pain is still there, but I find simply by my being aware of the guilt that might be causing it (emphasis on “might”; I could be psychobabbling),  my back pain has diminished to back discomfort, discomfort I accept as a consequence of a choice I once made, and a choice I would make again.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …”

# #


Out my Window


November is complicated.

I’m sitting in front of my computer next to a window which looks out over a small grove of fir and maple trees. With most of the leaves gone, the branches of the maples fan out against a vast blue sky. On the ground, a carpet of saddle-colored leaves glistens as shards of sunlight stream through the trees.

I love the light this time of year. What I hate is when around 3:00 p.m. that light dims to gray, first on the fallen leaves, then up the trees before turning the sky first charcoal, then black. Before I know it, I’m no longer looking out the window at trees and leaves, but at my refection in the glass. And it’s only 4:30 in the afternoon. In another month, it will be 4:00, leaving me in darkness for the next fifteen hours.

November is the month where Nature pares down, lets go, buttons up, readies itself for the storms to come. Except for some remaining kale (which I’m not sure I can eat any more of) my garden is bare. The landscaping crew has removed the leaves from the lawn. I’ve cut back the shrubs. There’s less color, more emptiness.

Like the maples outside my window, I’m losing my color, my sap, my strength. Like them, I have no control over these changes. I’m entering the season of my life when I can no longer shoot a basketball, climb a mountain, dive into a wave, lift my grandchildren.

I’m also intentionally paring down. I’ve stopped “discussing” politics with people whose views on COVID, race, and global warming I find repugnant. And speaking of repugnant, I no longer watch sports on TV because of the announcers and the commercials. As I ready myself for what lies ahead, I find myself rereading the books (The Lord of the Rings, the essays of E.B. White and Frederick Buechner) and listening again to the music (Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa solomnis) I love.

On the other hand, November is a time of abundance. My garden produced well, and we have enough tomato sauce and tomato soup to last us until next summer. I suspect I could be making kale smoothies until then as well. November is Thanksgiving dinner, with a bounty of turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and gravy and squash and beans and turnips and cranberry sauce and pumpkin and apple pie. November is feeling the abundance of family, some of whom I haven’t seen for two years, but who’ll hopefully arrive this year so that we have to bring down chairs down from the bedrooms and up from the TV room and my office so that everyone can have a place to sit.

Perhaps because I could very well have died two years ago from a heart attack, I find I now have a greater abundance of gratitude for each day—for my family and my friends, for my twelve-step groups, men’s groups, and writing groups that nourish me.

Amidst this abundance, however, I also feel a sense of loss for those members of my family and my friends whom I can no longer see. For me, November is the month of deaths, probably beginning with the assassination of John F. Kennedy when I was in college, an event which marked the end of my childhood. My father, a grandmother, and my mother-in-law all died in November.

November is hunting season: a time for legalized killing. For many years, I hated this time of year. My in-laws had a camp on an ocean bay, surrounded by acres of woodland—a beautiful spot. Except in November, when hunters from all over New England and New York took over the woods. For years, whenever I thought of November, I thought of a Saturday afternoon when my first wife, my young daughter, and I drove down the three-mile road to her parents’ camp. As we rounded a corner, on my right were four or five guys in blaze orange caps crouched on a hill, sighting their 30-30s across the road to the field on our left and some apple trees at the edge of the bay. When one guy saw us, he lowered his rifle to take a drink from a brown bottle. The rest just held their rifles steady. The Viet Nam War was still going on, and all I could think of was that I was driving along the DMZ. I felt helpless and afraid.

I thought of that afternoon and that fear and powerlessness many times several years later during the November my daughter went into the hospital for the last time because of the cancer that was ravaging her body.

That was the November my second wife and her children came to see Laurie. For Mary Lee’s sons, it would be for the last time. Before going to the hospital, we had a Thanksgiving meal at the Ronald McDonald House with Henry, who was getting radiation for prostate cancer and his wife Martha; Jennie (only five, being treated for a brain tumor), her mother, and Jennie’s stuffed penguin, Opus, sitting on the chair between them; and Dave Shepherdson, a potato farmer from somewhere in Aroostook County, whose nineteen-year-old daughter was in the hospital because her transplanted kidney, the one Dave had given her twelve years earlier, was failing.

And yet, my painful recollection of that Thanksgiving at the Ronald McDonald House and my sorrowful memories of my father, grandmother, and mother-in-law all dying during November have at some point in the last ten years or so—like that optical illusion of the two candle sticks which turn into a face if you look at it long enough—become cause for gratitude. Besides recalling my father’s death, for example, I think of the times he played baseball and basketball with me, our fishing trips. Yes, I still recollect Laurie lying in the hospital, but I also see her walking on the seashore, playing the piano, painting a picture.

In other words, November has become not only about death but about honoring and giving thanks for what St. Paul called those “clouds of witness” and the gift of life.

It’s complicated. But I’ll take it.

# #

Slowing Down


For just about all my life, I’ve walked along at three miles per hour. I know this because I used to time myself. Sometimes, I also used to count steps (for years 95 per minute, 10,000 per day).

Now, however, approaching the age of 80, I’m finding that my walking speed has fallen to just over two miles per hour and I’ve stopped counting steps.

And that’s just the tip of a lumbering iceberg. It takes me longer these days to do my exercises before breakfast, eat my breakfast, go through my emails, write a blog. Because I’m always looking for my keys, it takes me longer to get in the car. On the highway, every other car seems to whiz past. On the sidewalk, almost everyone walks around me. At the grocery store, people all seem to be in a hurry, and back home, on television, personalities seem to be talking like machine guns. My grandchildren leave me far behind when we’re outdoors, and indoors, they race through board games far too complicated for me to understand.

And you know what? I’m enjoying it all.

I think I began to slow down after my heart by-pass surgery two and a half years ago. Not immediately afterwards, because in the months that followed, I kept notes on my walking speed, heart rate, and blood pressure, trying to get back to what I once could do. No, it was when I’d reached all my old benchmarks that I realized I didn’t want to work so hard. I’d been given my life back.  It was time to pay more attention to the time I had left.

After years of starting each day with 20-30 minutes of sit-ups, push-ups, leg lifts, and back raises, I started another program based on posture and balance. Part exercise, part meditation, part philosophy, the teachings run counter to everything I ever learned about exercise: less is better than more, nothing should ever hurt, slow is better than fast. Instead of hearing the voice of my eighth-grade coach roaring in my ear: “Come on, Wile, move it, do more!” I hear my teacher whisper, “You’re trying too hard. Relax…” One reason it’s taking me longer to exercise these days is that one movement from my back to my side can take five minutes. But all the time, I’m becoming more and more aware of how everything everywhere in my body connects, and I’m learning how to relate bones and muscles in ways I never knew I could, in part because I’m finding parts of my body I never knew existed (the 7 bones of my cervical spine, for example). Becoming more aware of these connections and relationships makes me more aware of how the universe coheres, everything from the galaxies wheeling around the heavens to the roots of the trees in the wooded land trust behind my house to the quarks and leptons wheeling around in both my body and my grandchildren’s.

Speaking of the land trust behind my house, until recently, the distances I walked along the trails were determined by how much time I had and how far I figured I could go in that time. Now, I just head into the woods. Strolling down the path to a pond created by the run-off water directed through all the various drainage systems in our housing complex, I often see a blue heron fishing in the weeds. Walking slowly, quietly, I’m able to observe it—the stately posture, the focus, the grace—without frightening the bird into flight the way I used to. Time seems to stop.

After the pond, I enter the woods. This time of year, I notice the autumn sunlight slanting through the trees, highlighting the yellowing bracken in ways that always make me think of the British Isles. I stop for a bit, smelling the piquant aroma of the fallen leaves and decaying trees strewn around me. That’s when I start noticing all the mushrooms: red, white, black, brown, pie-shaped, trumpet shaped, button shaped, smooth, bumpy, crinkly…

I don’t know my mushrooms, certainly wouldn’t try eating any, but that doesn’t stop me from poking along, taking pictures, dropping to my knees (not a real problem; it’s getting up that’s hell) to inspect more closely.

When I get home, I realize it’s taken me as long to walk one of the shorter loops in the woods as it used to take to walk a longer one. I also know I’m happier than if I’d walked the longer one, eyes straight ahead, counting steps, pushing myself and ignoring the life around me.

That I’m also slowing down these days in my ability to remark or respond to others may not be such a bad thing either. The one thing I used to be able to do was come up with the fast retort or comeback—many I regretted as soon as they came out of my mouth. As a teacher, I had no trouble talking for an entire class period, often after the bell had rung and the kids were headed toward the door. These days, I’m finally learning how to listen, and to wait (which, by the way, is a 12-step acronym for “Why Am I Talking?”) before speaking at the various meetings I attend.

And, you know, folks, it’s amazing how much wisdom I can hear when I’m not talking or thinking about what I’m going to say next.

I used to love the Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go Gentle into that good Night,” in which the poet uses nighttime as a metaphor for death, and anguishes over his father’s acceptance of it, urging his father to “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” Yes, I used to think, this is how I want to die: skydiving from an airplane or climbing a mountain, pushing myself right up until the end.

 Now, however, I think that when the time comes, I want to stop and look at that dying light. If it’s anything like the waning light in October, it will be beautiful.

# #

A Meditation on Meetings



Looking at the title, you might think this blog is about business meetings or faculty meetings or town meetings. A blog where I quote Dave Barry: “If you had to identify in one word the reason the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’”

I could tell you about my first high school faculty meeting in Vermont in 1965 and the two items on the agenda: 1.) a guidance department recommendation to change the students’ cumulative averages from numbers to letters—in other words, instead of graduating with an 86 average, the student would have a B average—and 2.) a faculty committee recommendation that the high school have “differentiated diplomas,” showing whether the student had taken advanced placement, college, business, or general courses. And I could say that after over an hour of discussion, we voted to accept the guidance department’s recommendation and to table the diploma question for another meeting.

I could fast forward 32 years to Maine and the first faculty meeting of the year and the two items on the agenda: 1.) a guidance department recommendation to change the students’ cumulative averages from letters to numbers—in other words, instead of graduating with a B average, the student would have an 86 average—and 2.) a faculty committee recommendation that the high school have “differentiated diplomas,” showing whether the student had taken advanced placement, college, business, or general courses. And that after over an hour of discussion, we voted to accept the guidance department’s recommendation and to table the diploma question for another meeting. And I would add that I left this meeting thinking it was time for me to leave public education.

But I don’t want to write about those kinds of meetings.

Looking back at my journal, I see that a few pages before I started writing about our cruise down the Rhine this summer, I quote Pico Iyer, one of my favorite travel writers: “Travel is at heart about the meeting between one soul and something she doesn’t know, and that encounter will never grow old or disappear.”

This is the kind of meeting I think all of us, whether we travel to Europe or to the grocery store all crave: an encounter to give life meaning.

Later in my journal, I describe a statue in Speyer, Germany entitled Jakobspilger, German for St. James’ Pilgrim. Speyer is part of the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage route to the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela, where, according to Christian tradition, the Apostle Saint James was buried. Rereading my journal now, I realize that for almost six years now (Good Lord!), I’ve been blogging about my various travels—through both exterior and interior landscapes—as a pilgrimage.

And, I can see, as meetings.

In front of Jakobspilger’s long staff, an inscribed biblical verse from Hebrew 13:14, reads, in translation: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” I think of my pilgrimages to so-called “thin places,” where the distance between the secular and the holy, the cities that don’t last and the city which will, shrinks and I’ve met—albeit briefly—the eternal.

Sometimes, it’s a case of immediate recognition: my first glimpse of the Scottish island of Iona rising out of the mist sent chills down my spine, as did my first look up through California’s redwoods. I felt a vital connection, a spark of divinity, bringing me to life.

Closer to home, I’ve always felt more alive this time of year. While, as you can probably tell, I disliked faculty meetings, I always looked forward to meeting my students for the first time. My life was transformed by these meetings, and I’d like to think theirs were as well. Even now, I feel a little more alive watching my grandchildren begin a new year and despite the continuing threat of COVID, evince the same excitement I felt both as a student and as a teacher.

First Day of School 2021

Of course, not all encounters between “one soul and something she doesn’t know” are holy, or even pleasurable. Meeting death for the first time when my daughter died of cancer was the most painful experience of my life. And in her suffering during the nine months leading up to her death, I met Evil, felt it as a tangible presence: obscene, grotesque, and powerful.  These encounters also immediately changed my life.

More often, however, my most important meetings have taken me weeks, months, or years to recognize as being life changing. My favorite of all the resurrection stories in the Bible is that of the two disciples of Jesus walking on the Road to Emmaus after the crucifixion who meet Jesus and don’t recognize him until later, in “the reading of scripture and the breaking of the bread.” I’ve been married twice and in both cases, my first meeting with the woman with whom I would live “for better or worse, in sickness or in health,” for twenty and thirty-five years respectively made little or no impression on me.

When I was there, I hated the old city of Jerusalem, its heat, its religious tensions, its commercialism. Yet in the following weeks, I began to realize I had a clearer understanding of the complexity of Israeli and Palestinian relationships, that I understood the Bible differently (God, people then must have had legs of steel to walk up and down all those hills, and no wonder water was so important!) and that Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection made sense in ways it never had. Another encounter that, as Pico Iyer says, “…will never grow old or disappear.”

And then there are the times when I’ve met someone again for the first time. In some ways, I find these meetings the most satisfying. Students I taught forty years ago who reappear in my life as wise and witty adults. Old high school classmates (my 60th high school reunion is coming up), some of whom I never had much contact with, but whose Facebook posts make me laugh and cry.

The 45th High School Reunion

My wife, who surprises me every day. And, thanks to working my 12-step program, the me I’ve never met before, the one I’ve hidden for years behind any number of personas.

All of these engagements educate me, help me grow, even at my age.

So why are the other meetings so enervating? I’m not sure. I don’t think it has to do with size; I’ve had important 12-step and men’s group meetings with over twenty people in them. Rather, I think it might have something to do with whether our meetings are about making external changes—to numbers, letters, diplomas—or about personal transformation. In Al Anon or our men’s group, for example, there’s no trying to solve anything. There’s sharing instead of discussing. People speak from their hearts and not their egos.

Which shows me—and this is hard to write for someone who’s spent his life setting goals and trying to reach them—that being alive, really alive, is more about souls than it is about goals.

# #

Rhine Diary

The Middle Rhine


7/25: Amsterdam. We’re here. Right up until the plane took off, I wasn’t sure this trip would ever happen. Over the last two years, I’ve booked two cruises and had to cancel both. This spring, I had a painful bone spur in my heel. For the last two weeks, I’ve been reading and worrying about flooding along the Rhine. And after two years of staying at home, I find myself anxious and reluctant to travel to another state, let alone another continent.

On the plane from Boston, I started reading Sharon Salzburg’s Real Change, in which she talked about our three responses to stress—flight, fight, and freeze—and I realized how frozen I’ve been during this pandemic.

This was painfully clear at Logan Airport. The driver of our shuttle from the hotel let us out at the wrong terminal, so that by the time we got to the ticket counter there was a pretty good line. Once at the counter, we were told we needed to fill out a special COVID questionnaire to get into Ireland (never mind that we were only in Ireland to change planes), and that this form needed to be filled out on our iPhones.

That was when I literally froze. I couldn’t get my fingers to work and had to have Mary Lee do the damn thing for me. By taking so long, we got the last two seats in the back of the plane, which meant being the last off the plane in Dublin, which meant running (or what passes for running at my age) from one end of the airport to the other, which meant barely making our connecting flight.

But after meeting the nice folks at Viking and walking the streets of Amsterdam over the canals, I can feel myself thawing a bit, feel myself flowing with the pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars past people sitting in front of cafes and coffee shops.

7/26: We’ve started our cruise on the lower Rhine, stopping at Kinderdijk to look at 18th Century windmills, used to keep water out of these lowlands. Along the Rhine delta, many trees and bushes along the banks are still under water after the floods, and last week part of this cruise had to be canceled because of rapid water.

Still, I’m finding being on the river more serene than I’d thought. I shouldn’t be surprised, since I’ve always found rivers calming. I grew up by a river, and I’ve often imagined my life as part of a river flowing from my forebears to an indeterminant future just around the next bend. This morning, Mary Lee and I meditated on our little balcony outside our stateroom, and I watched the Rhine through half-closed eyes and felt myself rocked. Held.

7/27: Cologne. Our excursion this morning was primarily through the 14th-century gothic cathedral, one of the few buildings not destroyed in WWII by Allied planes. Supposedly, it holds the bones of the Magi and was a site for pilgrimages in the Middle Ages.

Cologne Cathedral

For me, however, it was finding the Kathe Kollwitz Museum during our free time this afternoon which was my pilgrimage. Kollwitz, the German artist who worked with painting, printmaking, and sculpture, and whose son Peter was killed in World War I, showed me how powerful art can be in helping to overcome grief. Reading Kollwitz’s diaries of her seventeen-year struggle to create a monument to her son inspired me to keep working on my novel, Requiem in Stones, based on the death of my own child.

7/28: Koblenz: Woke this morning to a change in landscape: more hilly, rocky, and wooded. Koblenz is 70 kms from Weilburg (pronounced, I find, “Vile-borg”), where my paternal ancestors originated before moving to Nova Scotia in 1750. No time to visit, but I’ve got it on my bucket list.  

Koblenz, like Cologne, was 90% destroyed in WWII, so I didn’t feel as if I were looking at the physical layering of history the way I did, let’s say, in Turkey, where stones from churches, mosques, or palaces from one era were used in erecting new buildings. Instead, we were looking at Germany’s efforts to incorporate—layer, if you will—its past into its national consciousness, especially its treatment of Jews. Today, for example, we saw copper inserts in the sidewalks in memory of local Jews who were killed during the war, as well as modern art and sculpture looking at eras of German history.

This afternoon, what’s called the Middle Rhine carried us by 16 or 17 castles. Again, the sense of floating through history. The views of castles rising out of the mountains, sloped with vineyards were magnificent.

One of the many castles on the Middle Rhine

Another great regional meal on board ship and a glass-blowing demonstration and presents for my brother and sister and us. Again, the power of art.

7/29: Speyer. Walking tour, courtesy of “Hermann, the German,” 89 years old, who biked two kilometers to meet the ship and guided us on a two-hour walk through the town before biking home. Hermann talked from personal experience about post-war Germany. He was a schoolboy in the Nazi era, wearing a brown shirt because if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been able to go past elementary school. His father was a German soldier who spent two or three years after the war in a French prison camp.

Hermann the German

Listening to the Germans talk about their past, especially their Nazi past, helps me be more more honest about those less pleasant parts of my life, and I think we in the U.S. can learn much from Germany in how to name and accept our past genocides.

7/30: Strasbourg. Brief trip into France. Actually, since 1870, Strasbourg has been part of Germany twice and part of France twice. The Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg is another church that was at one time the highest building in Europe. The churches I’ve seen so far on this trip show me how religion almost always becomes politicized. They may contain stained glass pictures from the Bible, but I also saw statue after statue of some general or king in armor wielding a sword. After seeing these churches, I shouldn’t find the political agendas of Fundamentalists unusual.

The Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg

In our free time this afternoon, Mary Lee and I wandered beside the canals before eventually stopping in a square for hot chocolate (me), coffee (her), a croissant, and people watching. Scribbling in my notebook made me feel like Ernest Hemingway—another (for better or worse) huge influence on my life—writing in La Closerie des Lilas, in the Montparnasse quarter of Paris in the 1920’s.

7/31: Breisach and the Black Forest. More cruising into my past. Germany’s Black Forest reminds me of Idaho’s Payette Forest. ML and I joined a hike to a waterfall, another rejuvenating image for me. I’m sure we were the oldest ones on that hike. I alternate between feeling old and decrepit and old and pretty healthy.

Mary Lee

8/1: Basal, Switzerland. Today we said good-bye to Rene and Maria and Marina and Ada and Ann Marie and the rest of the staff and left our cruise for our two-day extension to Lucerne, Switzerland. For many years, I worked summers with tourists, and I know how much work goes into making vacations run smoothly. These folks were good.


On the balcony outside our stateroom waiting for the bus to Lucerne, I read more of Sharon Salzburg’s Real Change: “When I want to summon strength and power in the midst of awfulness and hate, I contemplate water. [Water is]…always changing, in motion, yet revealing continual patterns of behavior.”

I’ve found these “continual patterns” fascinating on this trip, from my reintroduction to the serenity of rivers, to my renewal of my love of Kollwitz and Hemingway, to my feeling part of the river of Wiles flowing from Weilburg, to my continued love of streams and forests, to my summers working with tourists in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Salzburg also wrote that yes, water can freeze, but it can also thaw. And I feel thawed out. My goal is to continue feeling this way.

This morning at breakfast, we looked across what is now the Upper Rhine to the other shore to see a naked man emerge from the river, where he’d been for a swim, and walk down a boardwalk to his clothes. Most people found the guy hilarious. I, however, saw him as an icon for starting each day rising from a river, naked, newly-born.

Metaphorically, of course. I don’t even take my shirt off at the beach anymore.