Sounds of Silence


“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.


“…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.


“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?”)


“… 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.


…you, congregation

of one

are here to listen

not to sing.

Kneel in the back pew,

make no sound,

let the candles


—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.


“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.


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.


“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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Dingle, Ireland - 053


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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On (Being) Bridges


I grew up in a house on Bridge Street. As a child, I probably got spanked more for going down to the concrete bridge at the foot of the hill than for anything else. But in spite of my mother’s hairbrush, I couldn’t not go there. I’d meander halfway across the bridge and look over the railing on one side to the Royal River, coming down from where I didn’t know, cascading over a waterfall, and running under me; then cross to the other side of the bridge and gaze at the water flowing over rocks and disappearing around a bend to someplace else I couldn’t imagine.

Later in high school, I was still standing on the bridge, watching the river rush beneath me, but now picturing it gliding past the boat yard, into Casco Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, and on to exotic places where I wanted to go.

(Royal River, Yarmouth, Maine)

I continue to love bridges, whether it’s one of the small footbridges on the trails of the Topsham-Brunswick Land Trust behind our house, a suspension bridge over the River Tweed in Scotland, or the world’s longest elevated pedestrian bridge, 1.28 miles long and 212 feet above the Hudson River from Highland to Poughkeepsie, New York. My photograph album is full of pictures of bridges from St. Cuthbert’s Way, retreat houses from Massachusetts to California to Canada, and from around Maine.

(Along St. Cuthbert’s Way, England)

There’s no feeling quite like being on a bridge. Taking your first step on to a bridge, you know you’ve left firm ground. Your footing is just a bit unstable. Some bridges are dizzying. I’m always a little uncomfortable (how uncomfortable depends on the height of the bridge) but at the same time excited. Even on the smallest bridge in the thickest woods, the view is wider, and, of course, on a bridge like the Hudson River Pedestrian Bridge, the panorama is stunning. My senses are keener, my mind more awake, probably because I almost always pause when I’m on a bridge, sometimes to admire the view, sometimes to consider where I’ve been and where I’m going.

(View from the Highland to Poughkeepsie Bridge)

Bridges are great examples of being in liminal space. I’ve written before about the importance of liminal space in my life— —those times when I’ve been, as it were, on a bridge between one job and another, one marriage and another, and, the most important bridge of all, the nine months between my daughter Laurie’s diagnosis of cancer and her death—probably the most dizzying, unstable time in my life. And also, probably the most important for making me the person I am now.

(St. Cuthbert’s Way Again. This time in Scotland…I think)

Today, however, I’m thinking of people as bridges: those people who have helped me cross from one stage of life to another. Many were teachers and coaches. Often they made me uncomfortable (my eighth-grade teacher and coach Mr. Beal scared the hell out of me) because they pushed me harder than I wanted to be pushed. The old ground on which I’d been walking suddenly wasn’t there, and I was shaky, sometimes dizzy. (I remember my head swimming when Professor Wence handed me back my first college English essay, dripping in red ink and marked “Content: C- /Grammar: D- /Spelling: F.”) But they always expanded my view, woke me up to new worlds, whether it was Mr. Hanson in high school revealing that there was more than one political party in this country besides the Republicans, or Professor Bogarad in grad school showing me the world of Milton’s Paradise Lost, or Mike Steinberg twenty years ago introducing me to something called creative nonfiction.

(Footbridge, Mabou, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia)

It’s probably because of my admiration for these bridge people that for over fifty years, I’ve been, in one form or another, a teacher, trying to be that a bridge between my students and a larger world, be it an adolescent’s first sight of Shakespeare’s genius or the world of the past my retirees want to reopen and pass on for their children and grandchildren. To be able to see the eyes of a student of any age light up as they say, “Hey, I’ve never seen that before! This is cool!” is an experience like no other.

(Railroad Bridge between Auburn and Lewiston, Maine

I’m still looking for people to serve as bridges to new worlds. Not surprising, I suppose, is that the new world I’m most interested in these days is the spiritual one—what some in my age group would call the next world. I have no idea what this next world looks like, any more, I suppose than at five years old, I knew where the Royal River went. But I’m relying on people to give me at least a glimpse of it: people like Franciscan writer Richard Rohr (;  Thomas Merton ( ); the Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, the Episcopal monastery in Massachusetts (;  my rectors, Jonathan, Dan, and Carolyn; and the Northeast Guild for Spiritual Formation, an interfaith contemplative organization (

(And yes, I’m trying to be a bridge here. Check these websites out.)

(Somewhere in Maine. I’ve forgotten Where.)

When I was living on Mount Desert Island, one of my favorite things to do besides teaching, was to walk the 45 miles of carriage roads that John D. Rockefeller Jr. built between 1913 and 1940. I still go back now and then to walk them again. Walking or biking those roads, you can see sixteen bridges, each one unique and beautiful. (I think I’ve seen them all.) The view of woods and water and rocky cliffs from each is spectacular, but so are the bridges themselves—a reminder of the unique beauty of serving as a bridge for others to cross.

(One of J. D.’s Carriage Road Bridges)

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Here Comes the Judge!


Pilgrimages are about traveling light, leaving old patterns of behavior behind, opening yourself to new gifts. And I do pretty well. Except for the Judge. No matter where I go, I just can’t seem to leave the bastard behind.

I’m in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, or Salisbury Cathedral in England, or Iona Abbey in Scotland, magnificent symbols of the holy, created by a confluence of spirit, sweat, intellect, and prayer, and all I’m aware of are the tourists around me following guides like schools of mackerel. Instead of paying attention to God, I’m listening to this voice: Aren’t you glad you’re not one of them?

Or I’m on retreat, in search of silence and serenity, watching the Brothers at whatever monastery I happen to be at, envious of how much more at peace they seem to be than I am, and I hear, Why can’t you be that centered? Maybe if you shaved your head the way the monk over there has, you’ll achieve union with God.

Or I’m hiking St. Cuthbert’s Way or climbing a mountain in New Hampshire, trying to become one with nature, and I hear someone behind me on the trail. I glance over my shoulder and see a guy who looks like he’s been carved from the side of this mountain. He’s catching up with you, the Judge says. You have to go faster! I try to pick up my pace. I don’t to get off the trail until I absolutely have to. Then, as the guy strides by me, the voice behind my right ear, soft but certain, slow and confident—a lot like Clint Eastwood’s— says, Why can’t you look like that guy?

I’ve certainly tried. Over the years, depending on whom I’ve wanted or not wanted to be, I’ve gone on diets; I’ve changed haircuts, grown and cut off sideburns, goatees, shaped beards, and Grizzly Adams beards; I’ve taken up, and given up, cigarettes, pipes, cigars, snuff, scotch, gin, bourbon, hand-crafted beers, jogging, weight-lifting, several religions, a number of meditation techniques, Tai Chi and Qigong, yoga, scraping my tongue, neti pots, and hanging upside down.

The Judge remains unimpressed.


Besides pilgrimages and retreats, he is most likely to show up when I’m in social situations, such as class reunions, coffee hour at church, and parties. At my side, he leans in, pointing up to some people in envy, pointing down to others in disdain or pity, as if he and I were on some kind of ladder.

He was a powerful presence in the times when my life most seemed in chaos. During my first two years of college, when I had no idea of who I was or where I was going, the Judge sat with me in the back of the college den, disdaining the frat boys and sorority gals for being conformists, while telling me not to go back to my dorm because it was filled with losers. And after my daughter died of cancer, the judge convicted me of murder, sentenced me to a life of guilt because I’d caused Laurie’s death, either because I’d left her mother for another woman, or because I hadn’t left her mother soon enough.

I suspect the Judge was appointed by my alcoholic family, where “What will the neighbors think?” was the household mantra. If you appear to be in control, you are.  At the same time, judging is a way to keep people and situations at a distance. If I’m judging people, I’m not vulnerable to what they may say or do (another way to be in control). I can barricade myself behind the judge’s bench above the rest of the court, distant, respected, sarcastically wielding my gavel.

Never mind that the Judge has often kept me from being fully present to people, to the beauty of the world around me, to joy.


Still, if you go on enough pilgrimages, something is bound to rub off. A few weeks ago, when Mary Lee and I were traveling on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, the Judge pointed to the boney bicyclists pushing themselves up and down the rugged hills, and told me that when I got home I needed to lose 10 pounds (15 would be better). You ought to get one of those racing bikes, he said, or start walking ten miles a day.

For some reason—I’d like to think it was the grace that can come on a pilgrimage—instead of reacting immediately, I thought, well, the Judge usually shows up when I’m self-conscious or anxious about something. What’s been going on in my life lately? Alright, I’ve been writing about mortality in one way or another all year. Since April, I’ve seen three people my age die, and several more go into the hospital for major surgery. Could it be that I’m apprehensive about my own death, and I think that if I could just look like those healthy bicyclists, I might not die, at least not yet, and well, maybe I ought to get my neti pot out again…

And suddenly, the idea that I could diet my way to eternal life was funny. I thought of the old Rowan and Martin television show, Laugh In, and Sammy Davis, Jr., dressed in a long white wig and black robes, swinging his arms and strutting like a turkey, crying, “Here comes the judge! Here comes the judge! Here comes the judge!” (If you want to see for yourself, check out

Later that afternoon, as Mary Lee and I walked a nice, level trail along the Cape Breton shore, instead of the other mantras I sometimes use when I walk, I tried that one, synchronized with my breathing: (breathe in) “Here comes, (breathe out)… the Judge.” “Here comes … the Judge.” I might even have strutted a little.

I didn’t hear much from him the rest of the trip.


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Rooting Around


“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”

—Simone Weil


By the shore of the Minas Basin, Nova Scotia I’m walking a classic, seven-circuit labyrinth. In Tangled Garden, outside of Grand Pre, I circle through lavender, mint, thyme, blue stem, heather, rosemary, ferns, and other herbs I don’t recognize. Each breath I take is scented. Monarch butterflies flitter between plants.

I’m starting to appreciate walking labyrinths, learning to recognize their pattern in my daily life. The spiral, mystics say, is sacred. Their geometry (sometimes called the Fibonacci sequence) recurs at every scale of existence, from the arrangement of DNA to the coils of the brain to fingerprints to plants to the formation of stars in their nebulae. Walking a labyrinth is fraught with twists and turns, as is life.

As has been the morning.

Leaving Halifax, I thought Mary Lee and I would stop to see my great-grandfather’s grave on our way to Wolfville. I knew that Enoch Wile’s stone was in the East Gore Cemetery. I knew where East Gore was. I knew what the cemetery looked like. I knew how to get there. But apparently, I missed a turnoff, and labyrinth-like, we drove up to Maitlin on the Bay of Fundy, circled over to Noel, and back down again through West Gore, and then Gore, and finally to East Gore, which consisted of a meeting hall, a grain silo, and a former church now serving as a food pantry. Figuring a church would be in close proximity to a graveyard, I stopped the car and walked around the building, seeing nothing. I got back in the car and started driving in circles past the occasional farm and one hell of a lot of trees. Eventually, I came to a dirt road marked “Settlement” which I remembered seeing when I stopped at the church. This must be the other end, I thought, so I took it, thinking maybe an old cemetery would be on an old road. The road narrowed and curved and narrowed some more, then dipped down over a bridge marked “Road Floods” before coming out back at the church. Still no cemetery.

“Now where?” I asked my wife. As I looked to her for advice, I saw over her shoulder, across the road and up a hill, an arched gate reading “East Gore Cemetery.” We had passed it three times without noticing.


In the center of the labyrinth of Tangled Garden is a large upright circle of woven herbs, through which I gaze across the historic dyke lands of Grand Pre to the Minas Basin, which, at low tide, looks like an expanse of desert. In 1755, this area was the site of the British expulsion of French Catholic Acadians who refused to swear loyalty to England. Families were broken up. People were pulled from their roots.

I think of finally finding the center of my labyrinthian drive this morning, standing in front of Enoch Wile’s gravestone, discovering roots I never knew I had.


As I wrote in the last blog, one of the reasons for coming to Nova Scotia was to try to find out more about my Grandfather Lyman Wile, whom no one in my family ever talked about because my grandmother left him when my father was four years old. With the help of my sister, who’s become interested in genealogy, I learned that Lyman’s father was Enoch, and that Lyman had fifteen brothers and sisters. I found that south central Nova Scotia is filled with Wiles: there’s a Wileville, a Wile Settlement, a Wile Lake, and several Wile roads. I discovered yesterday in Halifax that all of these Wiles go back to one Johann Frederich Weil from Germany, who was one of several thousand “Foreign Protestants,” brought over by the British (whose King, George II, had grown up in Germany) in 1750 to settle Nova Scotia, and to take the place of the Acadians they were deporting.

My mind goes back to Enoch’s grave, which looks out past the church steeple and the grain silo toward the rolling, forested hills of East Gore, and I realize that after my grandmother had left Lyman Wile, she put her son, my father—who’d been named for Lyman’s brother who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918-19—into what was called “a Home for Wayward Boys” for eight years. Dad, then, grew up without any sense of what I’ve discovered was a huge family, and I find myself understanding for the first time some of his character traits that used to drive me foolish: his negativity, his gluttony, his alcoholism. Dr. Sharon Deloz Parks writes that people typically have two major support sources in their early lives—what she calls “threshold people,” who help us cross into another stage of life, and “hospitable spaces,” that provide a sense of home. My father, as far as I can tell, had neither. He was, in the words of theologian Denise Starkey, “spiritually homeless,” which, she notes, is often connected with addiction.

I think of how important my family has been to me, even though I’ve often tried to ignore them. I’ve spent a lot of time, especially since starting to attend Al Anon meetings, aware of how growing up in an alcoholic family has scarred me, but I realize that at some level I’ve always known my family would be there if I needed them. After I told my first wife I was moving out of our house, the first thing I did was call my parents to ask if I could stay with them for a while. When Mary Lee traveled from Colorado to be with me, I knew we could stay with my parents until we found a place to live. And after my daughter died, it was buying my grandmother’s house in the town in which I’d grown up that provided an anchor in what felt like a tsunami of grief. I’ve always known where the center of my internal labyrinth was, even though it’s taken a long circular journey through what bell hooks calls the “geography of the heart” to get there.


Before leaving the labyrinth, I stop to take a picture of three monarch butterflies. Every year monarch butterflies from all over North American are driven by forces we still don’t understand to make a two-thousand-mile trip home to the Monarch Butterfly Reserve in Michoacan, some hundred miles north of Mexico City, spending the winter together, becoming so many that their collective weight bends the trees. Then they make their separate ways north again in the spring. Not only are butterflies metaphors of the power of family and the journey home, they are symbols of the cycle of life—growing from egg to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly—i.e. life, death, and rebirth.

I’m not sure I feel reborn, but finding the heritage that I never knew I had, feeling a closer connection with my father, has made me feel more rooted. More whole. Healed in some way.

As Mary Lee and I leave Tangled Garden for our B&B in Wolfville, I see the Minas Basin filling with water.


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The Shadow Knows



“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

The Shadow knows. (Bwhahahahaha!)”

The Shadow, 1937-1954 radio program


As you read this, Mary Lee and I are in Nova Scotia, on what I think of as a genetic pilgrimage, traveling through the country that my Grandfather, Lyman Beecher Wile, left in 1906 to work in a Marlborough, Massachusetts shoe factory. Wile is a common name in the Lunenburg area of Nova Scotia—I’m looking forward to visiting Wileville—and I’ve made arrangements to meet with some distant cousins.

My grandfather Wile is a shadowy figure in my life. When I was growing up, no one in our family ever talked about him. I guess my grandmother left him around 1923, when my father was four years old. My mother told me that Lyman once beat my father with his belt, and Nanny told him if he ever did that again, she’d take Dad and leave. Apparently, he did and so did she. (I expect there was more to the story.) Other than that, all I knew until my sister started compiling a genealogy of the Wiles, was my Grandfather Wile came from Nova Scotia and lived in Massachusetts. I have a vague memory of an interminably long car ride to Marlborough ending in a series of winding streets and tenement houses and a hazy image of my father talking to someone who, except for being older and heavier, looked a lot like him. I don’t know the purpose of the trip—I expect my mother might have had something to do with it—but I know Dad never visited his father again and seldom mentioned him.

The way my family dealt with Dad’s father was typical of us, and many families I knew growing up (and actually, quite a few families I know now): if there’s something embarrassing or unpleasant or shameful in your past, never talk about it. If you’re afraid, if you’re in pain, don’t show it.

One the revelations of my life was to discover that all families, all people, have these dark sides that they don’t want to acknowledge. Psychiatrist Carl Jung coined the word “shadow” to describe the negative, socially unacceptable impulses, the sexual lusts, selfishness, greed, anger, and so on, that we try to deny and bury in our subconscious. This denial, Jung posited, is damaging because the most common way to avoid looking at our negative impulses is to project them on to others so that we don’t have to confront them in ourselves. Both as individuals and as groups, even as countries, we create scapegoats upon which to inflict those prejudices, fears, perversions that we won’t admit we have.

My most vivid memory of the power of my own shadow goes back to the year I moved from the two-room primary school just up the street from my house to the third grade in adjoining elementary and junior high schools. Suddenly, I was thrust into an intimidating world of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and because in those days students routinely repeated grades, some of these kids were sixteen and seventeen years old. Bullying, fighting, taunting were common occurrences. Up until then a serious and solitary kid who liked to crawl into a cabinet next to the chimney in his living room and nestle in the warm darkness, or pull the bed covers over his head when he listened to “The Shadow” on the radio, I started waking up early on school mornings, shivering with apprehension.

Fortunately (for me, not for her), there was girl I’ll call Ester Morin. She was repeating the third grade. Possibly twelve or thirteen, she lived in a section of town filled with tarpaper shacks. She was thin and round-shouldered. I recall a long face and I want to say she had bad teeth. I remember dark, tangled hair falling over one eye, a faded dress, probably too short to cover her scabby knees, dirty socks puddled around her ankles, and scuffed shoes with at least one broken strap. The perfect target for ridicule and teasing.

It was a no-brainer. I could try to hide from the big kids on the playground, or I could join the gang of anywhere from five to ten guys surrounding Ester with their hands over their noses and mouths, hopping up and down like crows and cackling, “Fart-smeller Moron!” I soon became one of those guys. In the halls, we tried to trip her; in class, we targeted her with spit-balls. Sometimes we would wait for her after school and run circles around her until she shrieked and swung her long, bony arms.

It was, I discovered, great fun. I had found someone uglier and clumsier and weaker than I was. Ridiculing her made me stop thinking of myself as a loser. If I was self-consciousness about being fat, it helped to know someone who was ugly. If I was afraid that an eighth grader would beat me up, it was reassuring to know there was someone I could hit and no one would care. Ester became my way to strike back at those morning fears, ridicule them with names like “fart-smeller” and “cootie-lover.” Every time she screamed and waved her arms like some broken doll because of something I’d said, I felt stronger.


I’m deeply sorry for the way I treated Ester. Still, I was 8 years old, I didn’t know any better, and I can’t do anything to make it up to her now. But Jung and others would say that I need to bring that memory to light. Richard Rohr, one of my spiritual gurus, writes: “Human consciousness does not emerge in any depth except through struggling with our shadow. It is in facing our conflicts, criticisms, and contradictions that we grow.” Maybe I need to remember Ester to help me confront and learn from my continuing sexist and racist tendencies.

Jung said that the shadow contains “positive potentialities,” such as creativity and spirituality. One example supporting his theory is that for the last several months, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art has featured an exhibit called “The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe.” The exhibit contains a variety of art, especially ivory statues, prayer beads, and jewelry boxes, urging us to “remember death.” Many of the figures have a human face on one side and a skeleton, sometimes with snakes crawling around the eye sockets, on the other side—a great depiction, I think, of our shadow side.

Last week I heard a speaker say that this art of “momento mori” reveals the renaissance search for meaning in death, which of course was commonplace. People apparently collected these figures and showed them to others. I couldn’t help but compare their attitude of curiosity to our present fear of death. We don’t want to look at death, so we relegate the dying to hospitals and hospice centers away from the rest of the world, and assuage our fears through caricatures of death in books and movies about zombies, demons, and vampires.

So perhaps I’m on a pilgrimage into the shadow side of my family. And possibly of myself. How much Lyman is there in me? Can I look at my own violent streaks, the pain I’ve caused my children, bring it to the surface, and reintegrate it into my life in a healthy way?

At this point, only the Shadow knows. (Bwhahahahaha!)


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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.

Version 3

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