On Quitting

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August 1, 2013. Outside of Ghost Ranch about 15 miles north of Abiquiu, New Mexico, I gazed across vistas of worn rocks layered red and brown and tan, punctuated with dark green brush. In the distance, Cerro Pedernal, the flat-topped mountain that inspired so many of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings and where her ashes are scattered loomed against the sky. The view, however, was streaked with thick spirals of rain falling from low black clouds moving toward me. I looked through the skeletal arms of a creosote bush at Chimney Rock, my destination, rising like an arthritic finger into the darkening sky. I really wanted to get up to it. But I thought of the sign at Ghost Ranch warning of how quickly violent thunderstorms can arise. I called to my wife that we’d better turn around.

Back at the ranch, I looked up at Chimney Rock, bathed in sunlight. The storm had gone around us. I was pissed. Not because I wanted a better view, not because I was particularly interested in what Chimney Rock looked like up close, but because of this voice in my head: Damn it, there you go, quitting.

Growing up with a basketball in my hands, I remember playing in the Portland Maine YMCA, and the signs over the backboards at either end of the court. One read: When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going; the other: A Winner Never Quits and A Quitter Never Wins. I carved these commandments into my psyche.

And they have often served me in good stead, inspired me to continue when I’ve wanted to stop. They’ve helped me recover from back surgery, two hip operations, and two hernia surgeries. They play in my head as I do my twenty minutes of exercises every morning. Recalling those words helped me get through some of the darkest days after my daughter’s death. I can’t tell you how many times I relied on those words during the twenty years of rejection letters, rewrites, course work, and financial expense until my novel Requiem in Stones (available—hint, hint—on my website, Amazon, and Maine’s finest independent bookstores) was finally published.

These backboard words of wisdom have also sent me on many a guilt trip. I often regret quitting the trombone—something I was pretty good at—in high school. I still feel guilty about deciding right after my final high school basketball game not to play ball in college, still wonder if I could have played at the college level. I dropped out of the University of Maine forestry program after a year. I’ve quit on a marriage, I left a teaching job in the middle of the year, and quit teaching altogether long before most of my colleagues.

Our society disdains quitters. If you google quotes about quitting, you’ll find that almost all of them say that it’s bad—un-American:

“Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever,” said Lance Armstrong, famous America cyclist.

“Americans never quit,” said General Douglas MacArthur.

“A man is not finished when he’s defeated. He’s finished when he quits,” said U.S. President Richard Nixon.

And yet, as I look again at all those things I quit on, I wonder, was quitting the trombone, basketball, the marriage, that job, really such a bad thing? What’s wrong with swapping a trombone for a banjo? Let’s say I’d played basketball in college. I certainly would never have starred; I was too short and too slow. (Hell, I never starred in high school.) So I’d have sat on the bench, and probably become a high school basketball coach—a job I could never imagine doing. The marriage was lousy; if I’d stayed in that relationship, I’d be dead now, I’m sure. If I’d never left teaching, I could very well have become one of the many cynical, depressed teachers I’ve worked with counting the days until their first retirement check so they could wait for the coffee shops to open in the morning.

While I was searching the net for thoughts about quitting, I found a PBS interview with Ewan Harris, founder of Quitter Quarterly. (It’s now a blog. Look it up.) In 2004, she published a book called The Art of Quitting. In the interview, Harris made a number of arguments in favor of quitting. The story of our lives, she said, is framed by quitting. The essential nature of a quitter is not laziness but a drive to move on. We quit because we’re bored, trapped, or because out dreams don’t match reality. The more things we quit, the more we do. The whole point of quitting is to move in the world.

Which got me thinking. I’m proud of the fact I quit smoking. Quitting booze has improved and possibly saved my life. I’ve got a number of other bad habits I should probably quit as well.

I discovered that the word “quit” is related to the word “quiet,” and originally meant freed or acquitted of a crime. Buddhism and other spiritual traditions warn that clinging strongly to anything or anybody causes suffering, and urge “detachment” or “letting go” as a way to freedom. Jesus’s disciples quit their jobs—threw down their nets—to follow him, and, in turn, he quit his life to show us that love is more powerful than death.

Going back to those Google quotes about the dangers of quitting, considering that Lance Armstrong has been barred from cycling for using illegal performance enhancing drugs to win his Tour de France championships, that President Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination, and that Nixon had to resign from office because of trying to cover up illegal campaign activities, I wonder if they—and the country—might have been better off if they had quit.

In her PBS interview, Harris talked about what she called the “quitting cycle.” Our “early quits,” she said, often involve schools and romances. (my God, I can’t imagine what my life would have been like had I married my first girlfriend!) Our “midlife quits” are our midlife crises. (Mine was the best thing that ever happened to me.) Finally, Harris talked about “older quits,” when we don’t give a damn what people think. I’m not there yet—I still wished I’d made it up to Chimney Rock—but I’m getting better.

As I was writing this essay, I received word that my oldest friend going back to before grade school had suddenly died. Which has driven home to me the fact that I have another “quit” in the cycle right around the corner, one that I have no choice but to make.

Rest in peace, Roger.

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The Path is Made by Walking

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Wanderer, there is no path,

the path is made by walking.

—Antonio Machado

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Mention “pilgrimage” and folks usually think of walking the Santiago de Compostela or similar perambulations. Walking is synonymous with pilgrimage. In the Middle Ages, Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims walked to the tomb of Thomas Becket, while serious pilgrims walked from Europe to the Holy City of Jerusalem. The practice of walking the labyrinth began then in order that older or more infirm pilgrims who couldn’t make it to Jerusalem could at least take their own spiritual walk.

So maybe one reason I’ve come to see my life as a pilgrimage is that I’ve spent a large part of it walking.

As kids growing up in Yarmouth, Maine, we walked to the school, to the store, to the ball field, to work. When I had back surgery in 1978, I was told to walk ten miles a day for three months, which I did, even though those months were January, February, and March. When I moved back to Yarmouth, I began walking around town, one foot in the twenty-first century and one foot in 1955. Now living in Brunswick, Maine, I often walk the two miles to and from down town. I co-facilitate a contemplative silence group, where we practice not only sitting but also walking meditation: focusing on raising, lifting, pushing, dragging, touching, and pressing down each foot—to remind us that the body is always in the present moment.

And some of the major formative experiences of my life—the joy of first love, the pain of homesickness, the surrealistic disorientation of grief—have come while I was walking.

Whenever I hear Johnny Mathis sing “Misty,” I am immediately pulled back to an autumn Sunday in 1959, walking home from an afternoon with my first girlfriend. Floating was more like it, down Spring Street to East Main, to Willow, to Bridge Street, past white houses shaded by leaves shining ruby and golden in the sun, the smell of burning leaves like incense, buoyed by the taste of Susan’s lips, the feel of her breast in my hand, the smell of her “White Shoulders” perfume, and the memory of Mathis’s high tenor: “Oooonnnn my own, would I wander through this wonderland alone…” playing on her hi fi as we kissed.

On other Sunday, November 24, 1963, I walked through the evening mist and fog and the almost empty campus of the University of Maine at Orono, still in shock after the events of the weekend: Walter Cronkite’s voice, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time”; the closed casket draped in black crepe lying first in the East Room of the White House before being taken by the horse-drawn caisson to the Capitol Rotunda; the subsequent killing of a puffy-eyed Lee Harvey Oswald; the funeral procession.

I remember walking past Dunn Hall and Hannibal Hamlin and Oak Hall, standing like silent spectators at my one-man procession, the afternoon’s funeral drums beating in my head—dum dum dum da dum—trying to feel like Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise surveying a dying America, but instead, feeling like a twenty-year old hick from Maine, lost and unhappy. Following the sidewalk down the hill, through some white birches looking ghostly in the misty light cast by the street lamps, past Sigma Nu and Beta Theta Pi fraternities. Past the President’s house, where on the lawn, the few remaining leaves of an oak tree hung like flags at half-mast. Past the Women’s Athletic Building and Deering Hall to the UMaine farm buildings with their smell of hay and shit and the sounds of horses moving in one of the barns. The mist turned to steady rain. I lit a cigarette and pulled the collar of my jacket around my neck. I realized that not one person in the entire world knew where I was, or, more important, cared, except for my family. A feeling of loneliness such as I had never felt before, full of emptiness, longing, and sorrow cascaded over me. I began to cry.

During the months of November and December of 1988, I walked a mile each way back and forth between the Ronald McDonald House in Bangor, Maine to the fourth floor of the Eastern Maine Medical Center, where my eighteen-year-old daughter lay dying of cancer.  I especially remember the walk back, through what I still think of as the bowels of the hospital. Confused and angry after a day by Laurie’s bedside watching her slip further and further away from me, I’d take the elevator to the main lobby, walk through a waiting room, around a corner and down a corridor lined at first with photographs of lighthouses and lobster boats, and then with memorial plaques hanging like rows of wooden shields along the wall. Often, I’d pause here, read a name or two, and wonder how long it would be until Laurie’s memorial plaque joined them. (About a year as it turned out.)

Past a row of gray lockers, the cinderblock walls turned to brick. I’d come to the laundry rooms, passing men and women in light-blue coats and plastic hairnets, looking like zombies in the dim florescent light as they pushed carts, baskets, and gurneys. Further on, metal and wooden doors marked Records Retention Center Office, Respiratory Medicine Office, Hospital Staff Only, Procedure Room #1, Procedure Room #2. Machines hummed. The corridor turned left and narrowed. The lighting grew dimmer, the air damper. Pipes and valves clunked overhead. More rooms: Data Processing, Computers, and Housekeeping Maintenance. When I turned another corner into a still narrower corridor, the walls closed in on me, and it was here I sometimes heard voices of people walled up like victims of an Edgar Allen Poe short story, sensed ax murders following me down the hall.

Just when it seemed the corridor would dead-end, a turn to the left led me to a narrow door, where I’d suddenly feel excreted out into a parking lot by a river, the light, even on the darkest days momentarily blinding me. But when my eyes adjusted to behold the cascading water and the russet oak trees and white birches on the river banks, their beauty was more painful than the ugliness I’d been living with for the previous six hours.

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These days, I do a lot of walking with grandchildren. Research has shown that babies are happiest when they’re carried while parents, grandparents, or the like are walking at a speed of three to four miles an hour. I know one grandfather who’s pretty happy at this speed as well.

I’m also finding that walking with older grandchildren is a good reminder that, as Christine Valters Paintner writes, “Ultimately, the pilgrimage journey asks us…to relinquish our grasp on certainty and control.” Have you ever tried taking a two-year-old and a four-year-old on a walk? They go where they want to, not where you do. Do you have someplace you need to be? Tough. Time does not exist.

But Valters Paintner goes on to say, “In that process we allow ourselves…to receive gifts far bigger than our own limited imaginations could ponder.” Amen. My grandchildren notice everything, and usually with a delight I’d long forgotten. What is more beautiful than a child’s smile? More joyous than her laugh?

Most of the paths I’ve walked have been well-worn ones. I’m guessing most of you have also walked (if not physically, then emotionally) paths of love, sorrow, happiness, and grief. But I also suspect each of us still has to find our own way forward along these paths—walk them as if they’ve never been walked before.

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The Eagle

LOCAL BALD EAGLE GEE

I’m due at the Winter Harbor, Maine Library in an hour to do an “author talk,” but the drive up from Brunswick didn’t take as long as I’d thought it would, so I have time to kill. Obeying a sudden impulse, I keep on driving another 10 miles along Route One until I come to a small sign, “Gouldsboro Point,” and take a right down a road I haven’t been on for 30 years.

My journey changes from self-promotion to pilgrimage.

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Once upon a time I lived and taught not far from here. On weekends and school vacations, my first wife, my daughter, and I drove down this road to my wife’s parents’ cottage of weathered shingles, perched on a grassy bank overlooking Gouldsboro Bay, one of Maine’s more secluded coastal indentations.

To me, “the Point” was a spiritual, even mystical place, where I could adore a mostly unspoiled Nature. I loved wandering the woods—ten square miles of spruce, birch, and maple trees, bounded on three sides by roads and on the fourth side by West Bay, which juts from Gouldsboro Bay like the claw from a lobster. Summer, fall, winter, spring—the season made no difference. The pungent smell of autumn leaves, the anthems sung by a June breeze through the spruce trees, the caress of the sun or the rain or the snow on my face called to a longing inside me.

And then, as my marriage began to sink beneath swells of bickering and troughs of silent condemnation, these weekend walks in the woods became a life raft: both an escape from the rest of the week and a call to another life, although at the time I couldn’t have told you what that other life might be.

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Today, the road down to Gouldsboro Bay is both eerily familiar and startlingly strange. There must be twice as many houses as I recall—one and two-stories with large windows and long driveways that contrast with the faded white houses that have been here for probably a hundred years or more. Rounding the bend at the end of Gouldsboro Bay, I see a new pier thrusting into the water with a large yacht tied up beside it.

Driving a few hundred yards further, I see the cottage where I spent some 20 years’ worth of weekends and holidays. It has new siding and a second story now. Across the road, where I used to enter the woods for my weekend walks, stands a large log cabin.

Which gets me thinking about the logging roads behind the cabin I used to walk, and the day I followed one of them past some old cellar holes and gnarled apple trees until I saw West Bay in front of me, high tide twinkling in the sun.

I remember turning right and re-entering the woods, up a faint path that ran along a bluff overlooking the bay, then stopping to walk under a canopy of spruce trees toward the bay to get a better view of the water. Standing in cool dark shadows under a huge spruce, I gazed across the glittering bay. I don’t recall what I was thinking about—probably daydreaming about travel or writing fame or sex or my unhappy marriage—until I heard a muffled noise—almost a thud—that seemed both faint and powerful at the same time. The air around me shifted perceptively, and then part of the shadow moved.

Twenty feet above my head, dark wings extended to over six feet across, the interlocking feathers a kaleidoscopic pattern of browns. Tapered wingtips separated and lengthened like sepia colored knives. A white tail fanned, lifted. One flap of wings sent the bird away from the trees, its legs down, curved talons extended. As it arced, I beheld a massive white head, a yellow hook of a beak, and one black eye under a furrowed brow. Then the eagle caught a thermal of wind and soared into the sky, and slowly began to circle the bay.

I felt numb or dumb for a moment—Gee, wasn’t that an eagle that just flew off over my head?—followed by an excitement that was a mix of joy and awe —God, that was an eagle that just flew off over my head! My legs trembled as I stood on the embankment and watched the bird become a tiny cross in a royal blue sky. Even after the eagle vanished over the islands at the end of Gouldsboro Bay, my heart kept up its tattoo. A small waterspout churned across the bay, raising white caps. Seaweed undulated below me. The world seemed to be dancing and I wanted to dance with it.

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As I turn around in the driveway to the log cabin across the road from my former in-law’s cottage, I remember my excitement at just seeing an eagle at a time when, because of pesticides and other pollutants, only about 30 pair lived in the entire state. I recall the grace with which the eagle took flight. I recollect my mixed feelings of fear and awe and joy. But as I drive back towards Route One, what I remember most is the dead weight of sadness and frustration I felt when I tried to tell my wife what I’d experienced.

“That’s nice,” she said. “But I wish you’d stayed here and helped me paint the porch railing. Now I’ll have to finish it next week. Wash your hands. It’s almost time for supper.”

I know many people prefer to make their pilgrimages alone. Some writers say all real pilgrimages are solitary experiences. Maybe so, but today I see that being under the eagle’s wings might have been my first realization of how much of the longing I’d been feeling on my woodland walks had been for someone to share my joy and my sorrow, my uncertainty and my plans. I think of my loneliness on those nights when my first wife and I drove back from the Point to our house, funereal distance separating us like a fogbank, and then I recall the night I met my second wife, Mary Lee, when we talked until three in the morning about everything from snake hunting to God. Our letters to each other sometimes reached thirty pages a week. I wish she were here now, even though I kissed her good-bye only a few hours ago and will kiss her hello tonight.

I realize it’s when I isolate myself that I get into trouble: not only how often I get lost when I walk alone, but also after my daughter Laurie’s death, when I retreated into my den with a bottle of scotch, when my guilt and my anger alienated me from my family and friends, when I stopped going to counseling because I was convinced that my story was worse than anyone else’s, when I miss a few weeks of my twelve-step program, when I don’t meet regularly with a spiritual director.

I don’t know about you, but I need to share not only my anger, shame, and confusion, but also my happiness, dreams, and successes with someone else, someone who can make me feel that what I’m experiencing matters.

Which is why I think most of us need a spouse, a partner, a good friend. Why a lot of us need God.

I’m back on Route One now, heading for Winter Harbor—looking forward to talking with people about my writing, but anticipating even more getting home and telling Mary Lee about my day.

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Our Embedded Remains

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A Wall in Selcuk, Turkey

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Of course, not every trip needs to be a pilgrimage.

I know, I know: given the title of this blog and the pilgrimages and retreats I’ve described over the last year and a half, you’d think the only worthwhile journeys I’ve ever made have involved intense planning, a degree of discomfort, and an even greater degree of “spirituality.”

But a few years ago, Mary Lee and I had a wonderful trip to Turkey. Our purpose was to visit friends and to escape a Maine winter that had extended, as it often does, into April. For a week, we were chauffeured around and fed royally by Lynne and Finlay, who, after teaching in Istanbul for ten years, had bought a home in Selcuk (as in “sell-chuck”) in the western part of the country. I hadn’t prepared for the trip and knew next to nothing about Turkey, except that the apostle Paul, one of Christianity’s heroes, spent a lot of time there.

I had no idea that the ancient city of Ephesus, where Paul lived for a while and for whom he wrote one of his Epistles, is part of Selcuk. Nor did I know that Selcuk is also the site of several other holy places: The Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient World; the Basilica of St. John, built on the tomb of John the Beloved Disciple and author (perhaps) of the Bible’s Book of Revelation; the Home of the Virgin Mary, where Jesus’s mother is thought by pilgrims to have spent her last days; and Isa Bey Mosque, which dates from the fourteenth century.

And perhaps because I didn’t come to Turkey as a pilgrim, or perhaps because the hordes of tourists—a lot of Asians, Germans, and Australians—reminded me of the tourists in Old Orchard and Bar Harbor in Maine, none of these places ever felt to me particularly holy.

What I did feel was a palpable sense of history. For centuries, Turkey has resided at the crossroads between Eastern and Western cultures. Part of Istanbul is in Europe and part of the city is in Asia. Turkey is where Noah’s ark is supposed to have come to ground after the flood. The Grand Fortress of Selcuk rests on the site of castles going back to before 5,000 BCE.  Before becoming a republic in 1923, the country was, at various times, part of Greek, Roman, Christian, and Islamic empires.

And I’m not exaggerating when I say this history is palpable; visitors can see and touch it. Turkey’s historic civilizations are literally embedded in one another, stone next to stone, sometimes in strange ways—carved marble cornices in the middle of granite walls, for example.

This embedded history is clearly evident in Selcuk. You find very little left of the Temple of Artemis, once known throughout the ancient world for its mix of classic Greek and near Eastern design, because after its final destruction in 262 CE, its marble stones were used in construction of later buildings, including the Basilica of St. John. And when the Basilica became unusable after a fourteenth century earthquake, some of its stones, along with stones from the Temple of Artemis were used in building Isa Bey Mosque in 1375.

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What’s left of the Temple of Artemis. In the background: Isa Bey Mosque, the Basilica of St. John, and the Grand Fortress of Selcuk.

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Even on vacation, however, you can never entirely escape your own history. Seeing, touching, the stones that make up Selcuk’s past, I couldn’t help but wonder if, just as Turkey’s civilizations were built using the remains from previous cultures, who I am today isn’t built of some of the destroyed remains of previous selves I’ve reassembled.

I thought of when, a year or so after my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer, I’d read a review in the New Yorker by Terrence Rafferty of the movie, “Black Rain,” about the survivors of the destruction of Hiroshima in WWII, and how I’d identified with the way Rafferty described them:

They “…live in a perpetual state of suspension, a constant twilight. Their survival is too tenuous to give them much joy; it’s more like a wary, static persistence… They’re contaminated by uncertainty, and every gesture they make, every word they speak, is halting, self-conscious, tentative.”

I’m guessing that anyone reading this who’s lost a child understands what Rafferty is talking about. Your entire world—your past, your present, your future—is destroyed. All your old landmarks become rubble, and you have no point of reference, nothing to guide you. You wander lost and fearful.

But maybe one of the ways we grieving parents survive is by embedding parts of our old, destroyed selves into transformed ones, possibly becoming stronger in the process.

I was raised in the Christian tradition. If I could draw pictures of my early faith, they would resemble a child’s book of an idealized 1950’s small town, filled with quaint Andy Griffin meets Ozzie and Harriet characters. God was, like my pastor and next-door neighbor, Scotty Campbell, a nice guy who winked and always seemed to be around, even when your parents were busy. As I grew older, I replaced those images with a Sierra Club calendar of majestic, forest-covered mountains glowing in a brilliant sunrise, filled with possibility. When I met Mary Lee, I added more images to include her, the two of us being guided along bucolic trails by a creative, loving Presence.

And then I learned that God was capable of creating not only purple mountains’ majesty but cancer cells. At first, God disappeared, then reappeared as the Great Saddist, inflicting pain on innocent children. Eventually, God became the Great Opponent, with whom I, like the Biblical Jacob, wrestled, until I finally surrendered to what I now think of as the Great Mystery of Grace.

Today, I realize that should I try to blueprint my faith, it would look a lot like some of the buildings Mary Lee and I saw in Turkey, with images of God as caretaker, God as creator, God as opponent, God as mystery, God as lover, embedded—along with sorrow and joy, doubt and faith, shame and compassion, grief and hope—into one edifice.

Sort of the way, come to think of it, a pilgrimage can sometimes become embedded in a vacation.

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The Annual Pilgrimage

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In the 1950s and 60s, high school basketball was the king of Maine sports. Communities rallied around their teams and the twice-weekly games were the social events of the season. Fights broke out, tires were slashed, romances—even marriages—began and ended before, during, and after the games.

One of the highlights, not only of the winter, but of the year, were the high school basketball tournaments. Not only did schools shut down for the week, businesses closed. Some townspeople took their vacations in February, not to fly to Florida but to drive to Lewiston, eat at Stickino’s Restaurant, and watch the Western Maine Basketball Tournament at the Memorial Armory.

I first heard the call to become part of what I now think of as the annual pilgrimage to Lewiston in the eighth grade, when I began playing basketball. By the following year, while I might have gone to church on Sunday and listened to my pastor and next-door neighbor, Scotty Campbell, tell us about a loving God, my real worship service was in my backyard, shooting my new yellow Voit basketball into the hoop my father had put up over the garage door. My scriptures were the sports pages of the Portland Press Herald and the Portland Evening Express. My icons the pictures I cut from Sport magazine: Hot Rod Hundley, Jungle Jim Loscutoff, Bill Russell.

The twenty-six-mile drive from Yarmouth to Lewiston took us small-town kids into another world: a city of bright lights and dark alleys, where everyone, it seemed, spoke French, and tall spires of stone churches loomed against the horizon. The Memorial Armory itself, built in 1922-23, also stone, cavernous, inspired an even greater feeling of awe.

But as with any good pilgrimage, it was the journey itself that was as important as the destination. Riding on the team bus, I learned about sex (even though at least half the information was wrong), what makes a good joke, and any number of songs. I learned how to hold my own swapping insults—what we called “cutting”— and I made friendships that continue to this day.

The first time I walked into the Armory, I realized at some level I’d crossed the threshold into what today I would call liminal space—out of ordinary time, neither past nor present nor future. The smell of smoke, sweat, and popcorn was like incense to my nostrils. My ordinary life—my family, my interests in music and reading, even my fantasies about girls—dissolved, and I was completely in the moment, focused only on the other team, the basketball, the basket.

In those days, the Western Maine Basketball Tournament was comprised of eight teams each from small, medium, and large schools. The teams with the best win/loss records played those with lesser records, with the winner going on to play other winners until there was only one winner left: the Western Maine Class S, M, and L Champions, who would then face the Eastern Maine Champions in the even bigger cities of Portland or Bangor. Every game was a 32-minute morality play, complete with heroes—our guys—and villains—their guys. There were always upsets, increasing the drama. And, of course, there were more losing teams than winning ones: one of life’s great lessons.

Pilgrimage is about dealing with disappointment, learning from mistakes. It’s interesting to me that during the four years I played basketball for North Yarmouth Academy, the town’s high school at the time, our team lost no more than maybe a dozen games, and yet I remember the losses far more than the victories. For three years, NYA won its first tournament games and then met Freeport in the Western Maine Finals, where we lost every time. During my senior year, we finally beat Freeport, as well as all the other teams we faced in the Western Maine Tournament, besting Cape Elizabeth to win the Class L Championship. I remember little about any of those games. What I do remember vividly, even 56 years later, is our loss to Orono in the State Championship. I can tell you the score—74-52—as well as where I scored each of my 10 points—one long jump shot to start the game, two foul-line jump shots, one put back off a rebound, and two foul shots.

Pilgrimage, however, is also about beginning again. For me, the next basketball season started the day after the tournament ended. I estimate that during my four years in high school, I had a basketball in my hand 350 days a year. I was always looking ahead to the next year. Playing basketball gave my life a meaning and a purpose. It gave me hope.

One reason I had such a hard time adjusting to college was that once I stopped playing organized basketball, I no longer had the next season to look forward to, nothing to work towards. This turned out to be a great lesson, one I’ve needed, still need more than ever these days: for serenity, I have to have a goal—some kind of basket, if you will—to shoot for.

As a teacher, I continued to attend the high school tournaments, now as a spectator, watching the game change, observing some of my former opponents in the crowds or refereeing the games. And I still watch the occasional tournament game on Maine’s Public Television channel.

I watch as some people go to church occasionally, as reminders of how the experiences of my youth have molded me. For example, there was always a spiritual component to basketball for me. Those many hours I spent shooting my yellow ball into the make-shift hoop—the sense of first extending and then leaving myself, as if the ball were part of me, so that releasing the ball toward the basket was like soaring into the air, leaving the secular world behind—I see now as precursor to years of meditation.

And after my daughter died from cancer, I found myself thinking of Mr. Beal, my first basketball coach, and the way he had driven me. I heard his voice sometimes in the morning, “Come on, Wile, move it!” and I began to think of my grief as a basketball opponent, one I needed to work as hard to defeat as I had had to work to beat Freeport.

Except for some rural parts of the state, basketball is no longer king of Maine sports. Hockey, football, soccer, lacrosse—both men’s and women’s teams—all draw big crowds. A good thing, I think. (People who talk about the good old days seem to forget how few opportunities there were then for women to participate in much of anything except cheerleading.)

And while I’m sorry the Lewiston Armory no longer hosts high school tournaments, I’m glad to see it is still hosts recreation programs, gun shows, the “Androscoggin Falls Angels Roller Derby League,” and, once a year, large numbers of the Somalis now residing in Lewiston who gather to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.

Nice to see that the Armory remains a destination for pilgrims.

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Negotiating the Past

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I suspect the past

does not resemble its photos.

—Richard Hoffman

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So I was all set to call this week’s blog, “Past as Prologue.” My first paragraph was going to tell you about the second day of a seven-day walking pilgrimage along St. Cuthbert’s Way, when, still apprehensive about being able to complete the 62-mile trek from Melrose, Scotland to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the east coast of England, I looked back across a newly mown field to the Eildon Hills my wife Mary Lee and I had climbed the day before and thought, Hey, I climbed those. I can do this!

In the next paragraph, I’d planned to quote one of the Brothers at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, who said in a homily that hope is not about the future so much as about the past: that it is from our past experiences we gain the strength and the knowledge to give us hope for the future.

From there I figured I’d continue with all the ways my past has helped me deal with everything from canceled plane flights to the death of my daughter to the challenges of aging.

And then this skeptical voice in my ear said, Wait a minute. Are you sure the past has always been that helpful?

I recalled how when Mary Lee and I began our St. Cuthbert’s Way pilgrimage in Melrose, we’d had a hard time finding where the damn walk begins. You’d think it would have been easy to find. The village is small and the St. Cuthbert’s Way markers are distinctive. But the sign that marks the turnoff from the street is tiny and part of a brick wall, and Mary Lee and I missed it several times. Each time, I grew more and more panicky. What do you expect? another voice—my judgmental one—chided. You’ve always been a loser. You’ve never been able to do anything right. You might as well go home. Memories of years of falling off my bicycle before I was finally able to learn balance, of fouling out of a basketball game in 19 seconds (some kind of record, I’m sure), of being jilted by girlfriends swarmed through my head until I heard Mary Lee call, “Hey, I found it. It’s down this alley.”

Which started me thinking about the times when the past, rather than make me hopeful, has made me feel hopeless. A few weeks ago, the Al Anon group I attend was talking about resentments. As I thought of mine—usually against people with more money than I have, people who haven’t worked as hard as I have, people who just seem to have more luck than I do—I realized that every one of these resentments was passed down to me by my parents. The shame of growing up in an alcoholic family has been the driving force in my life, dictating the vocation I followed [See my previous blog], my nightmares (always some situation where I’ve lost control and feel humiliated), my difficulties identifying and talking about my emotions.

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As I understand it, memories are snapshots our brain takes of each moment, which it then files away until we retrieve them. What seems to be in doubt is why we retrieve certain memories and not others, and what we do with these memories once we do retrieve them.

I know that sometimes, we—I, at least—change them.

Racked with guilt after the death of my daughter, for example, I found it impossible to recall any of the good times I’d had with Laurie, only those times when I’d spoken harshly to her or spanked her, times when she’d been angry with me, times in which I failed her in some way.

And then there was the afternoon, about a year after Laurie’s death, when my grandmother, Nanny Cleaves, lay dying in a nursing home. I stood by her bedside looking through a window on the town in which I’d grown up and suddenly recollected a scene thirty-five years earlier. The memory was vivid: I sat at a folding counter-top my father had built in front of a tall window with light green curtains that looked down the street to the river. I was eleven years old, pudgy with smooth round cheeks and blond highlights in my crew cut, wearing a jersey with horizontal stripes, corduroy pants that whistled when I walked, and black P.F. Fliers. I had sheep-like brown eyes that I kept focused out the window as I ate my bologna sandwich, trying not to think about my mother, who was in the hospital because the baby she’d been carrying inside her had come out too early and died.

Nanny, who had come to stay with us kids while Mom was in the hospital, stood behind me. Her shoulders were broad and her bosom was massive. Her arms looked like thighs, too big for the short-sleeved flowered dress she wore. Her hair was short and parted like a man’s under a hairnet. Her mouth was a straight line. Her eyes were hard and black. She spoke in her flat, Maine voice: “If you’d carried the laundry for your mother the way you were supposed to, she wouldn’t have lost that baby.”

I didn’t look at her. I ate my sandwich and tried to think about playing baseball after lunch, but her words stung and my eyes burned.

At the nursing home window, I turned and stared across the room at my grandmother. I heard her labored breathing. I thought of those afternoons I’d listened to my daughter’s breathing—ash…es, ash…es—and of the rattling in her lungs the night she died. My cheeks burned with guilt and rage as I thought of how my grandmother had accused me of murder.

I never questioned that memory—never doubted what I’d heard my grandmother say—until fifteen years later, when I was recording some of my now-eighty year old mother’s memories, and she talked about her miscarriage of a five-month baby girl in the kitchen of our house and of how she’d almost died of ensuing infection.

“I’d been helping your father carry lumber up to the second floor so that he could add on to one of the bedrooms,” she said. “And I overdid it.”

When I told her of my guilt for not having carried laundry, she said, “That was never one of your jobs. You were usually in school when I was doing laundry.”

And I realized that what Nanny had probably said to me was that when Mom came home from the hospital I would need to help her around the house, especially with lifting things such as laundry baskets. But in my grief that year after Laurie’s death, I remembered not the actual events of thirty-five years earlier, but an eleven-year old boy’s solipsistic sense of responsibility.

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All of which is not to say that the past hasn’t helped me live in the present. I wouldn’t write so much about my past if it didn’t help. But I am aware in ways I wasn’t before I started writing this week’s blog that the past is something that needs negotiating.

A little, I guess, like negotiating the hills and animal pastures of St. Cuthbert’s Way. The walk is definitely worth taking, but there are some shitty places you have to walk through, mud holes in which you can get bogged down.

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I’m sure I’ll still use the past as a way to guild me into the future; I just need to be careful about getting bogged down, either by sentimental nostalgia for a time that never existed except in my imagination (a real problem as I get older) or by the baggage of seventy years worth of wounds, some of which I’ve also fabricated.

The trick, I suppose, is to keep one eye looking back at the Eildon Hills, and the other looking ahead to the Holy Island.

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Work as Pilgrimage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’d you teach?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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