The Pattern of Exodus

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The Crossing of the Red Sea, 1634, by Nicholas Poussin. Wikipedia.

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The first time I ever heard the word “exodus” was probably in Mrs. Raynes’s Sunday school class back around 1950, when we learned about the miracle—Mrs. Raynes was big on miracles—of Moses parting the Red Sea and leading the children of Israel to the Promised Land. A few years later, like half the civilized world, I saw Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments, and learned that Moses looked like Charleton Heston, turned wooden staffs into snakes, and wandered around the desert for forty years.

I thought of the word last week while on my exercise bicycle, reading Margaret Gunther’s Walking Home: From Eden to Emmaus, meditations on famous walks in the Bible. Gunther reminded me that the Israelites had first come to Egypt from Canaan to seek sanctuary from a famine that was sweeping the area. Some of you may remember the story of Joseph, son of Jacob, whose brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, but who rose to power, becoming Pharaoh’s right-hand man. In an act of forgiveness, Joseph invited his father and his eleven brothers to join him in relative comfort while the rest of the area was starving. Four hundred years later, however, the Egyptians had enslaved the descendants of Jacob until Charlton Heston—I mean, Moses—came to their rescue and led them to the land God had promised them.

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What intrigued me was Gunther’s observation that this pattern of exodus—from sanctuary to slavery to escape to arrival at the promised land—is an archetypal journey many of us take.

Peddling on, I thought of the sanctuary that was my home town, but which became, by the time I was seventeen, a prison I could hardly wait to escape. In college, I wandered a desert of unhappiness and confusion, until I found what seemed at the time, a promised land in Down East Maine. I recalled a marriage that began as a sanctuary from a hostile world’s assassinations, civil unrest, and a war that was killing off my friends, only to become a passive-aggressive battle with a woman I didn’t know, and skirmishes with addiction and self-flagellation, before an escape to the promised land of Mary Lee’s love and understanding.

Then my mind peddled on to my most recent exodus.

Most of you reading this blog know that my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of a rare cancer. Seeking sanctuary, I bought my grandparent’s house back in the town in which I’d grown up—the one I couldn’t wait to leave thirty years earlier. At the time, I would have told you that buying the house was like the Israelites crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land after forty years of wandering.

Adrift in a sea of uncertainty and sorrow, the house became my anchor. Looking into its history, I discovered that it had been moved a quarter of a mile from Main Street, that it had been built up, added on to, partially torn down, and remodeled countless times: a mirror, I felt, of what had happened to me over the years. I researched many of the people who had owned my house, found their gravestones, and discovered that almost all of them had lost children, which gave me the comfort in not being alone in my grief. The large maple tree in my backyard became my family tree, complete with a large broken limb jutting from the top.

I assumed I would live in that house until I died.

I’m not sure when this promised land turned to prison. There might have been a foreboding as early as when Mary Lee and I first moved in and I was in the process of turning what had been my grandparents’ dining room into my office. In order to have more space for my books, I was taking off to door to what had been a china cabinet, when I heard my grandfather’s voice: “And what do you think you’re doing, young man?”

Whether because I was afraid of pissing him off even more, or because I found the memories I had of the house comforting (this was the first house I lived in with my mother and grandparents after coming home from the hospital in 1943 while my father served in the Army overseas, the house I came to for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter dinners), I largely left the house the way I remembered it, which included drafty windows, worn linoleum, and a damp cellar that frequently flooded after storms. I never could call the house “my house,” without feeling as if I were lying. The house was always—and remains so in my mind—my grandparents’ house.

One day, shortly after the cellar had flooded again, I realized that I knew more people in the cemetery than I did in the local grocery store that had just completed its third expansion in twenty years. That I was spending almost every day driving to another town, because that’s where my job, my friends, and my church were. That my anchor had become a millstone.

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The house that will always be my grandparents’. Oh, and the roof leaked, too.

Still, it took retirement and the recognition that Mary Lee and I were going to have trouble keeping up the mortgage payments and the increasing taxes to spur us to move. Even then, leaving the house was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I remember walking through the empty house after the movers had left, listening to the echoes of footsteps and memories, wondering if I hadn’t made a terrible mistake.

But since then I’ve never regretted leaving. Have I found the promised land? It depends what “promised land” means, I guess. Certainly, compared to the thousands and thousands of people being forced these days into exoduses from their countries, I have. I’m happy where Mary Lee and I live. Still, I doubt if it’s permanent. We’re trying to budget our bucks so that, if necessary, we’ll be able to afford one of the assisted living facilities that have sprung up like mushrooms around here. But they’re not going to be any kind of promised land, either.

Growing older, I find myself thinking of the promised land as more of a frame of mind, a spiritual not a physical destination, not unlike pilgrimage, a place of freedom from bondage, a place of growth, and at the same time, a place of serenity—a word I’m coming to value more and more these days.

For now, I seem to have found it, but I expect that part of the archetypal pattern of exodus is that one never really gets to the promised land and stays there, at least not in this lifetime. (The Israelites were forced into exile in the 6th century BCE and again in 70 CE.) I expect that I’ve got one or two more exoduses ahead of me before the big one.

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On Diminishments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Up the Hill

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Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem

“I lift up my eyes to the hills…”—Psalm 121:1

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Many popular travel books describe the joy of climbing mountains. I’ve done a little of that, but for the most part, I prefer hills. Walking up a hill requires less physical effort, so I’m more aware of the view and less aware of how much my legs hurt or where to put my feet or that I’m afraid of heights. The scenery tends to be more familiar than from a mountain top, yet at the same time, as I climb a little higher, I get a different perspective, see the familiar in a new way.

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Ten years old, I run from my house on the side of Bridge Street hill up to Main Street. Cresting the hill is like opening the door to a huge and wonderful world. Depending on the time of day or the time of year, I can go left down to Vaughn’s Pharmacy and have a root beer, or continue to Pride’s Market for a candy bar. I can go right to the movie theater and watch Hopalong Cassidy, or keep going to grade school. I can go straight across the street to church, or cut around the church to the ball field. Any direction will get me to one of my friends’ houses.

Food, education, God, sports, and friendship—values I still prize— are all just up the hill.

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For four summers in high school, I walk up the hill to meet Willy and Scott. We amble down Main Street, past the boat yard and then up Pleasant Street hill to go to work in Bornheimer’s Market Garden, where I grow four inches, turn as brown as a walnut, and broaden my education far beyond what I learn in school. I gain knowledge of dirty jokes, what putdowns are okay and which aren’t (no mothers!), and, during lunch hour, how to improve my jump shot. I also unearth the joy of being out of doors, the self-confidence that comes from being in good physical condition, and the satisfaction of finishing a difficult job. I plant plans for my future and cultivate friendships that will continue into that future.

Oh, and I also learn to like eating vegetables.

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Much of what I know about the up and down nature of love and lust and loneliness comes from walking hills. Going to and from my high school girl friend’s house means walking up and down Willow Street Hill. At first, I feel as if I’m floating instead of walking, until the afternoon Susan and I break up, and life becomes for a time all downhill. I follow the same path in 1972, when my wife, my two-year-old daughter, and I move into a brand-new house at the top of Main Street in Ellsworth, Maine. At first, the house represents our chance to build a future together as a family. Then, as the cellar walls crack and wind blows around the windows, our neighbors party loudly into the night, and the lawn turns brown in the summer, I realize the cracks and the leaks in my marriage, how often we fight into the night, and how love can wither. Going up the hill to my house becomes more and more difficult.

But when, remarried, I return to my home town to buy what was for fifty years my grandparents’ house just around the corner from “The Meeting House on the Hill,” I rekindle the joy and wonder I used to experience when I was a kid going up hills. I finally learn what it means to love someone and be loved in return.

I will need that love in the coming years, as my life becomes an uphill struggle with the deaths of my father, my grandmother, and my daughter, all within four years of one other.

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In the old city of Jerusalem, I stumble up the Via Dolorosa, traditionally the street where Jesus was forced to carry his cross to his crucifixion, following Franciscan Brothers on their Friday “Walk of Devotion” to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It’s hot and the narrow street is steep and crowded and everyone seems to be yelling at me to buy a sheepskin or an icon or a plastic model Israeli airplane. Suddenly, in my mind it’s December, and I’m walking alone from the Ronald McDonald House to the Eastern Maine Medical Center where my eighteen-year-old daughter lies dying of cancer—up an icy hill past lonely gray houses with mansard roofs and an obscene spray painting on the side of an abandoned brick building, which in two years will become the setting for a Stephen King movie.

A hill in Jerusalem, a hill in Bangor, Maine: both physically and psychologically difficult, surrealistic, full of meaning that I won’t grasp for years, and yet which will mark me, turn me into the person I am today.

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Almost twenty years later, Mary Lee and I walk St. Cuthbert’s Way, from Melrose, Scotland to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the east coast of England. We spend the summer preparing for our sixty-two-mile pilgrimage: we read books on St. Cuthbert, we walk from four to ten miles a day, we increase L.L. Bean’s profits for the year. What we don’t plan for are the hills. Funny, they didn’t look that steep on any of the YouTube videos we watched. At some point, laboring up Wideopen Hill, gasping for breath, I realize that while the hills may not be any steeper than many I’ve climbed in my life, I and my lungs, scarred from years of smoking, are older. I see in the low clouds rolling over the heather, perhaps for the first time, my mortality.

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These days, any time I want to be reminded of mortality, I have only to walk up Bridge Street Hill past my old house. By the time I get to Main Street, my lungs are burning and my legs feel like anchors. Most of the time, growing up, I never even thought of Bridge Street as a hill. Still, as the hills in my life—both emotional and physical—keep getting steeper, it helps to think of them as part of a life-long pilgrimage, seeing some of the same views, the same people, but from a little higher perspective, while at the same time looking back to see wrong turns I’ve taken, and also times when I might have taken a wrong path toward disaster, but didn’t.

These hills also make me curious to see what kind of world will open for me when I crest that last one.

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Along St. Cuthbert’s Way

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Holiday Hope

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A few weeks ago, I made a pilgrimage to Mount Desert Island, where I once lived and worked, to attend a five-day contemplative retreat. During the first session, our facilitator asked us to share a particular concern we’d brought to the retreat with us. When it was my turn, I found myself saying I worried that during what is traditionally a time of hope, I’d lost hope in the future of this country. At almost 75, I said, I wasn’t that distressed about my prospects, but I worried about those of my grandchildren.

I also said that this time of year has always been a hard for me to be hopeful because my daughter died on December 23, 1988, and for the past twenty-nine years, the increasing darkness outside mirrors the increasing darkness inside of me as I recall the two months I spent living at a Ronald McDonald House, walking back and forth to the hospital to sit by Laurie’s side watching her grow weaker every day.

Since that retreat, I’ve been thinking a lot about hope and about Laurie, and as strange as it might sound, I’m finding the more I look back over the years since her death, the more hopeful I am for my grandchildren and for myself.

One of the questions I asked myself after Laurie died, was “How am I going to survive this?” Well, my pilgrimage through grief hasn’t been easy, for me or my family. I still stumble in anger, still get mired down in resentments. But looking back over the twenty-nine years, I can also honestly say that I have discovered grace and joy and a peace that, as the Christian Apostle Paul wrote, “passes understanding.”

I’m not entirely sure where this serenity has come from, but so far, I can think of four possible sources, four reasons to give me hope, four legacies I want to pass on to my grandchildren for their futures:

The Strength of Family. I grew up in a family scarred by alcoholism, abuse, and abandonment. Some of those wounds were passed on to me and my siblings, and I’m still in recovery, still realizing how this background has influenced my behaviors over the years, from my own addictions to my arrogant and judgmental attitudes. But the work I’ve been doing lately in my twelve-step program has also shown me that I’ve reaped the benefits from having two parents who overcame their own hideous childhoods, who loved me, sacrificed for me, and, above all, gave me some of my character traits I’m most proud of, including the strength to overcome the loss of a child.

I want to pass that strength on to my grandchildren.

The Dynamic Detachment of Nature. I’ve spent some of the most “spiritual” moments of my life struggling up mountains, sweating in deserts, snowshoeing in bitter cold, and peering through ocean fog. What makes these landscapes spiritual for me is that they make me feel small and insignificant. The ocean is going to break over the rocks no matter if I’m filled with joy or filled with grief; the sunrise will paint the clouds pink regardless of what happens in Washington. Yes, Nature is filled with death, disease, and violence, but even in death it teems with life. One of my favorite images from hiking Saint Cuthbert’s Way from Scotland to England is of a blown-down tree, its roots exposed. The tree’s branches have grown into four new trees rising from the decaying trunk. That force, that instinct to grow and blossom and bloom, drives, I think, all life.

I need to remind myself that force runs through my grandchildren, giving them the power to flourish, no matter what obstacles they’ll face.

The Healing Power of the Arts. Before Laurie died, about the only writing I’d done was in my journals. I was an academic. My goal was to do more work for the College Board as a consultant. But after Laurie’s mother and I divorced, Laurie, who had also been focused on academic studies, swapped her L.L. Bean skirts and blazers for long sweaters and jeans, dyed a pink stripe in her hair, painted her fingernails black, and took up art, going to summer art programs, and planning to study art in college. After her death, I began going to summer writing programs, took early retirement from public school teaching, and went back to school for an MFA. Writing helped me identify my feelings, and became a way for me to harness my anger and my shame by writing a book and then revising it through God-knows how many rejection slips. More important, writing, like the banjo I wail on, like Laurie’s watercolor that hangs over my desk, reveals to me an essential order to what often seems, especially after a great loss, a chaotic and meaningless universe.

My grandchildren love to listen to stories, love to tell stories. It’s apparently natural for them to build and color and draw pictures. I want to nurture those instincts.

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The Chuckle in the Dark. In A Grief Observed, popular theologian C.S. Lewis recorded his anguish over the death of his wife. Never intending his words to be published, he railed against God for the suffering and pain his wife had endured, and for the sorrow that was tearing him apart and demolishing everything he’d previously believed about God. Gradually, however, he experienced an “impression which I can’t describe except by saying that it’s like the sound of a chuckle in the darkness. The sense that some shattering and disarming simplicity is the real answer [to the mystery of suffering and death].” The retreat that I participated in a few weeks ago focused on the works of an anonymous 14th century writer who felt that the only way one could experience God was in what he called a “Cloud of Unknowing.” Since the loss of my child, my experience of God/my Higher Power/ the Eternal/Whatever has been through subtraction rather than by addition. I’ve lost all I ever learned about God, especially the idea that God is some compassionate Superman: all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing. And like C.S. Lewis, like the anonymous 14th century author we discussed, as I’ve lost those images of God, I’ve experienced an unfathomable serenity, one that has lasted this year well into the holidays.

I’m still not optimistic about the future of this country. I’ve read too much history about the rise and fall of empires not to feel that our nation is in decline, if not free-fall. But over the last few weeks I’ve discovered a difference between optimism and hope. Hope—for me anyway—is as much about the past as it is about the future. Hope looks back and grieves the reality of death, disease, decline, and destruction but at the same time, hope gives thanks for a life filled with the grace not only to survive but to thrive.

Which gives me hope my grandchildren will do the same.

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Companions on the Road

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On our way to Israel, 1997

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God bless each of us as we travel on.

In our time of need

May we find a table spread in the wilderness

And companions on the road.

  • — Iona Abbey Worship Book

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When I first began reading about pilgrims and pilgrimages, I formed an image of a solitary figure, staff in hand, striding over the landscape. And indeed, many authors that I’ve read on pilgrimage seem to have wended their ways by themselves.

I, however, have no desire to go on any kind of pilgrimage alone.

I recall when Mary Lee, my companion for the last thirty-three years’ worth of pilgrimages, and I had stopped to rest along our walking pilgrimage of St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose, Scotland to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the east coast of England, and a woman passed us going the same way. Head down, so that all I could see at first were the red tints in her hair, she was engrossed in a map encased in plastic hanging from a lanyard around her neck. A compass attached to a mirror dangled from another lanyard around her neck, and a GPS hung from her belt. She appeared startled, even frightened, to come upon us. She said her partner was hiking toward us from the town of Fenwick and that she hoped they would soon pass each other as he walked to Wooler behind us to pick up their car, which she’d left for him.

“This way we don’t have to wait and pay for public transportation to get back to our car,” she said.

“That sounds like a clever idea,” I said.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought the woman and her partner weren’t being clever at all. The woman was obviously nervous about getting lost. I doubt if she saw much of the beautiful landscape around her. Several times a day either Mary Lee or I would say, “Now, do we go this way?” or “Hold up. I think it’s this way.” We were continually pointing out to one another a view or a strange bird or a gnarled tree the other had missed.

While we passed much of our time in silence, we also reminisced, made up stories, and sang. After several months of dealing with my mother’s death and her father’s moving into assisted living, we got a chance to debrief, restoring and building a deeper relationship, and I wonder if not only the trip itself but also preparing for it and talking about it afterward was part of the “holiness” one associates with pilgrimage.

It was also fun watching Mary Lee climbing over those stiles in a hiking skirt.

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I think of other companions on our pilgrimages, who have sustained us and whom we have sustained.

There was Paul, a young curate with a goatee, at Saint George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem. When Mary Lee and I, jet-lagged and overwhelmed by the strange sights, sounds, and smells of an alien culture, arrived to stay in the guest house, he invited us to go into the old city of Jerusalem with him, guiding us through the labyrinthine streets, recommending places to eat, and introducing us to local shopkeepers.

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Paul and Mary Lee

There were Dick and Judith Graham from Indiana, whom we met at Mrs. Jenkins’ Bed and Breakfast in Cambridge, England, and who invited us to share the day with them and their rented car. In the morning, we toured Cambridge, and in the afternoon, drove out to the ash-gray ruins of a twelfth-century castle at Saffron-Walden, after which we’d walked an outdoor labyrinth that according to the guidebook measured exactly 5280 feet, none of which Mary Lee and I would ever have seen without them. After Judith flew back to Indiana, we tried to return the favor by making Dick our constant companion during a three-week Elizabethan Studies program, introducing him to Daddy’s Sauce for his scrambled eggs, and taking him with us punting on the Cam and searching the pubs of Cambridge for the perfect pint.

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Dick punting us down (up?) the Cam.

Both times Mary Lee and I stayed on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, we stayed at Duncraig Guest House, where we befriended and were befriended by pastors, rectors, poets, visual artists, and two delightful spinster sisters. Mary Lee learned about Christian exorcism, I learned about puffins, and everyone else learned about Maine.

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But if the companions I’ve met on the various roads through Israel, Scotland, and England have been helpful, the companions I’ve met on my pilgrimage through the grief and grace of losing a child have been essential.

Like Mary Lee on St. Cuthbert’s Way, Paul in Jerusalem, or the Grahams in Saffron-Waldon, my companions in groups such as Compassionate Friends, the Center for Grieving Children, or my Twelve-Step program give me another set of eyes to help me see the support available or the beauty and love I might have missed because, like the woman we met between Wooler and Fenwick engrossed in her maps, I have my head down, absorbed in my grief, nervous and fearful about the path I’ve found myself on.

I need someone like Paul, who knows the territory, knows how to negotiate the dark, twisted passages my mind can take me, shows me how to get sustenance, introduces me to others who can also help. Instead of puffins, these companions introduce me to writers, speakers, who broaden my awareness, and I, hopefully, do the same for them, whether it be recommending Daddy’s Sauce or a writer I especially admire.

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One such writer is Christopher Wiman, author of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. “I never feel closer to God than when I’m in conversation with someone about God,” he says, reminding me that companions are essential on any kind of spiritual journey.

Mary Lee and I have just returned from a five-day silent retreat, where we spent much of our time sitting in contemplative prayer with eight other companions. Sitting together in contemplation, we literally feed not only off each other’s silence but also off God’s.

This feeling of being fed makes sense, because the word “companion” comes from the Latin, meaning “one with whom I break bread.” I’m writing the first draft of this blog in a local coffee shop, sitting across the table from Mary Lee, who is trying to finish both her half of our muffin and the book she’s supposed to read for her upcoming book group. I don’t think we’ve spoken in the last hour. And yet for that hour she’s supported me, fed me, in ways that even a Morning Glory muffin cannot do.

There was a time in my life when I thought that being a real man meant being strong, silent, and self-sufficient. My dream was to live by myself and my black lab on an island off the coast of Maine.

Thank God, not all dreams come true.

I’m more of a cat person, anyway.

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White Mountains, 2016

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Sounds of Silence

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“Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”—Thomas Keating.

When I was growing up, my father moon-lighted as the sexton for our church, and my first paying job was to go there on Saturday morning, pick up last week’s bulletins from the pews in the sanctuary and set chairs up in the Sunday school classrooms. I loved the empty church, especially the sanctuary. I loved the way colored dust floated in the light through the stained-glass windows. I loved the smell of candlewax, the soft carpet under my feet, and above all, the palpable silence that enfolded me.

I’ve been in love with silence ever since.

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“…but the Lord was not in the wind… the Lord was not in the earthquake… the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”—1 Kings 19:11-12.

I measure the worth of my pilgrimages, retreats, and other trips by the amount of silence I experience. I recall with joy the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, where sound seems muffled in ethereal light, and the Arizona desert, as the rising sun over saw-toothed mountains silently splashes light over prickly pear, cholla, barrel, and saguaro cacti.

Conversely, my stomach still reels when I remember the old city of Jerusalem: the noisy labyrinth of streets and alley-ways, strange chants from Armenian priests in black hoods at Saint James’ Cathedral, Orthodox Jews bobbing in front of the Western Wall, torrents of Muslims returning from Temple Mount after Friday prayers. Gawking spectators, money changers, tasteless displays of religiosity. And everywhere, voices yelling at me to buy, buy, buy.

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“Silence like a cancer grows.”—Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence.”

I’m sorry, Paul, you blew it with that line. Don’t get me wrong, usually, I like your stuff, like especially that in your seventies (like me), you’re still writing new material, still performing. It’s noise, however, that’s the cancer of our culture, and it’s gotten worse since you wrote that song. I can’t buy groceries, go to the dentist or the doctor, wait on hold, without being assaulted by the blasting or the bland. (Who of us growing in the 50s and 60s would have thought that the music that so shocked our parents would be today’s shopping center Muzak?”)

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“… there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.”—Thomas Merton

If you want to talk cancer, during the months of November and December of 1988, I sat by my eighteen-year-old daughter’s bedside at the Eastern Maine Medical Center, watching Laurie die of the disease, and asking “Why?’ Why weren’t any of the treatments working? Why couldn’t the doctors and nurses keep her more comfortable? Why did she become sick in the first place? Why was she dying?

After one particularly bad day—Dr. Brooks had explained to Laurie that her cancer had spread into her pelvis, the new patient next door kept screaming at everyone to “Fuck off!” Laurie had started vomiting green bile, and my ex-wife wanted me to complain about one of the nurses—I left Laurie’s room about 4:00 p.m. to return to the Ronald McDonald House. I was so upset that I didn’t realize that the elevator had dropped me off at the second floor and not the lobby. Lost in thought, I walked down a hall until I found myself standing in front of a door that said “Chapel.” I turned the doorknob and entered.

The first thing I noticed was how quiet the room was. Even in Laurie’s single room at the end of the hall, there was always a steady undercurrent of noise from machines or voices in the hall or near-by TV sets. Here, there was only the sound of my heart beating to the question, “Why?”

From somewhere in the ceiling fresh air cooled my face. I felt my body loosen. The silence seemed to keep drawing first my angry words and then all of me into its embrace.

Out of the stillness I heard the words, “Don’t ask why, just ask for help.” These words might have saved my life.

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…you, congregation

of one

are here to listen

not to sing.

Kneel in the back pew,

make no sound,

let the candles

speak.

—Patricia McKernon Runkle: “When you meet Someone in Grief”

After Laurie died, I received all kinds of advice—Be patient… It’s God’s will… You’ll get over it… I know just how you feel because my uncle/cousin/grandmother/dog died…Suck it up!…—none of which was helpful, and nearly all of which pissed me off. It wasn’t until I started trying to counsel other grieving parents that I realized how difficult it is to find words of support. That was when I realized the only thing that had helped me was someone compassionate enough to simply sit with me in silence. I try now to do the same.

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“Silence is helpful, but you don’t need it to fine stillness.”—Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks.

What I’m really after, of course, is interior silence, what my twelve-step program calls “serenity,” and Eckhart Tolle calls “Stillness.” And, say he and others, one can have that stillness even in the midst of the noise that harasses us almost every minute o every day. I read an account once by a writer who took a Buddhist monk to a movie. Apparently the movie was louder and more violent than the writer had expected. He turned to the monk to see if he wanted to leave and saw in meditation, a half-smile on his face. Later the monk thanked the writer for giving him two hours of uninterrupted meditation time.

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You have called me into this silence to be grateful for what silence I have and to use it by desiring more.”—Thomas Merton

But I’m not a monk, Buddhist or otherwise. Especially as I enter into this holiday season—not only noisy in the good ways that being with family can be (Mary Lee and I have just had twenty people for Thanksgiving), but also deafening in its crass materialistic ravings, all complicated by the fact that this is the time of year I spent by my dying daughter’s bedside so that every day from now until December 23 will be an anniversary of some sorrow—I need to set aside places and times of silence, where I can relish and nurture the memory of those silent retreats and pilgrimages, draw from them, drink from them as if they were oases in the desert.

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“The rest is silence.”—Hamlet

This morning, Mary Lee and I went for a quick walk before breakfast. Under a motionless November sky, the 20° air was still. An occasional oak leaf fluttered noiselessly to the ground. Trees raised their bare branches to the sky, as if in silent prayer. We walked without talking, something we do more and more these days, resting in what we have created between us over the past thirty-three years: a silence and a stillness too deep for words.

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Edu-cations

Dingle, Ireland - 053

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The other day, I was trying to consolidate photos on my computer (Does anyone besides me miss the old photograph albums?), when I found around a hundred pictures from August of 2009 when Mary Lee and I participated in a “Stonecoast in Ireland” program. Looking at the slideshow I created (Okay, computers have their advantages) I realized I’ve never thought of my week in Dingle on the southwest coast of Ireland as a pilgrimage.

At the same time, it wasn’t a vacation.

I decided the best word to describe it would be an “edu-cation.”

Now there were certainly elements of a vacation. Our program leaders, Ted and Annie Deppe, (both fine poets, teachers, and really cool people—check out their work), had planned each day:  mornings devoted to each participant’s teaching a class on a writer we admired, critiquing the essays, fiction, and poetry we’d submitted (I’d never been in a mixed genre workshop before), and listening to guest lecturers; afternoons and evenings eating in Dingle’s fine restaurants and listening to Irish jigs and reels in the pubs, and being chauffeured and guided around southwestern Ireland in style.

Dingle is a town geared for those on vacation. In addition to all the places to eat and drink, there are gift shops, a lovely book store (where we did a reading one night), woolen shops, and an aquarium. Walking the streets, I heard German, British, Italian, French, and Japanese, as well as American accents. The week I was there, Dingle harbor was full of yachts for some regatta. Tour boats took passengers out to catch a glimpse of “Fungi,” a beloved dolphin and tourist attraction since the 1980’s. The Coastline Motel, where we stayed and had our classes was comfortable and the breakfasts were scrumptious.

On the other hand, pilgrimages are supposed to be difficult, and traveling to Ireland was more difficult than any pilgrimage I’ve been on. When Mary Lee and I put together our trip, we wanted some retreat time, so we booked our first night in Ireland a day early in Glenstal Abbey outside of Limerick. Due to thunderstorms and something called “pilot time,” however, we spent the first night of our trip in Saugus, Massachusetts. (To help me write this blog, I put on the Skyteam tee-shirt I still have from Delta’s overnight bag.) On the day we’d planned to be in silence and slow time at Glenstal Abbey, we spent thirteen hours in Kennedy Airport in New York City, trying to find an internet connection so that I could explain to the Brothers why we weren’t there (They were very nice and didn’t charge us), running back and forth from one end of the terminal to the other because the plane to Shannon Airport kept changing gates, and listening to people screaming at ticket agents in eighty-seven different languages. (If someday for my sins I go to Hell, I expect it will be a lot like Kennedy Airport.)

The other challenging trip was to Great Blasket Island, three miles off Ireland’s western coast. Because of weather conditions, we didn’t know when we were going, and the trip we did make came at the last minute, when the captain of our tour boat saw “a window of opportunity.” (Which, I found out later, meant that the ocean swells had dropped from twenty feet to six to ten feet.) In a steady rain, we boarded the boat, and chugged to the island, where we transferred to motorized rubber rafts to go ashore.

Dingle, Ireland - 055

Once on the island, I entered the same kind of liminal space I’ve talked before about in these blogs on pilgrimage. Empty windows of stone houses peered at me from the furze and heather growing on peat bogs. Wild sheep and donkeys grazed and rabbits scampered across foot paths. The island had been abandoned since 1953. Before then, it had been inhabited since the 16th century, and by the early 1700s, there had been as many as 170 people fishing and farming there. The reason Ted and Annie included this trip in the itinerary was because in the 1920s and 30s, Great Blasket Island was known for its writers, publishing in the native Irish language about life on the edge of European civilization. But after that, the population kept declining until there was no one left.

By the time we disembarked from our rubber rafts, the rain was coming down hard. Good Mainers that we are, Mary Lee and I had our L.L. Bean raingear and waterproof hiking boots, so we took off for the northern part of the island, past the houses and the sheep, splashing through mud puddles and a bog that seemed to be breathing.

My wife was in heaven. In her other life (our term for the years before we met), she’d owned a donkey, and she thinks of the donkey as her spirit animal. She immediately gravitated to those descendants of the work animals Islanders used instead of horses.

Dingle, Ireland - 060

I was more interested in the views of the water and the fifteen seals bobbing up and down like kids waiting for the movie theater to open, and the melancholic sense of standing on the soggy, uneven ground between life—Mary Lee petting the donkeys, the seals below me, the seabirds circling overhead—and death, symbolized by the collapsed stone houses.

Great Blasket was not a “spiritual” destination as such. Although I gather monks lived here in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were no ruins of monasteries, not even a cemetery (when someone died, they were taken to the mainland for burial). Unlike most of my pilgrimages, there was nobody in particular I had made this journey to honor.

Still, as far as I’m concerned, the day was a spiritual experience.

Which raises the old question: what does “spiritual” mean? Writers on pilgrimage often refer to “the call to pilgrimage,” a longing to reach a destination, one connected with a destination within yourself, one that ties you to the transcendent. One of the reasons I wanted to participate in “Stonecoast in Ireland,” was that I yearned for my writing to be published, and fulfill a vow I’d made to my daughter Laurie after she died to become a writer as a way to honor her memory. (And the essay I took with me to Ireland did eventually become published as part of my novel Requiem in Stones.)

I was also paying homage to writers I admire and want to emulate. I taught a class on Frank McCourt, one of my literary heroes, both because he was a former high school English teacher and because he didn’t publish his first book, Angela’s Ashes, until he was in his late sixties. (Which as far as I’m concerned is a triumph of the human spirit.)

So while the call to make this trip probably wasn’t “spiritual” in the sense of my trying to become closer to God, it wasn’t simply to get away, either. My edu-cation to Dingle became an interior journey to creative parts of myself I didn’t know were there. I began writing poetry. I developed a love of Irish music. I made friendships that continue to this day.

Edu-cations show me how blurred the line between pilgrimage and vacation can be. Which reveals how blurred the line between spiritual and secular can be.

More and more, I’m coming to believe that no matter how they begin, my real pilgrimages are the journeys I make through the landscapes—the bogs and ocean views, the empty houses and spirit animals, the loud conflicts and lilting music (not to mention through the digressions that keep pulling me off track)—of myself.

Dingle, Ireland - 056

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