The Stay at Home Pilgrimage

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Recently, a former (a word I prefer these days to “old”) high school classmate sent me a podcast of Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise, in which Tippett talks with Paulo Coelho, author of such popular books as The Alchemist, and The Pilgrimage. In talking about his own “pilgrimage of who am I?” Coelho said that since pilgrimage involves leaving our homes and discovering something new—meeting new people, paying attention to the elements, being open to life—we are on a pilgrimage from the moment we are born to the moment we die.

Of course, I loved hearing this since for over three years the idea of this blog has been to talk about the similarities between the pilgrimages and retreats I’ve been on and the everyday trips I’ve made to basketball gymnasiums, a Ronald McDonald House, 12-step meetings, weekly old-time music jam sessions, high school reunions, and family burial grounds. But Coelho has me wondering if I’m paying enough attention to the pilgrimages I make even when I don’t leave the house.

I have one of these thingies on my smartphone that tells me how many steps I make in a day, and I’m proud as hell when I get over 20,000 steps. But lately, I’ve been focusing on just 12 steps. My daily readings, my phone conversations with my sponsor, are journeys of discovery. Not all of these explorations are pleasant. Just as on a hike I can twist an ankle tripping over an unseen rock, or scrap a knee, or, in the case of a recent hike in Arizona, come back punctured with cactus stickers, I can stumble over a repressed childhood memory, scrape my defenses, puncture my ego. Yet all of these wounds have helped me learn to let go of the perfectionism that has tarred and feathered me with shame and resentment for over seventy years.

As Coelho and other writers on pilgrimage have said, it’s the letting go that makes any journey—interior or exterior—a pilgrimage. And it’s those survival tools I learned growing up at home, such as perfectionism, judgmentalism, codependence, solipsism, and the like, that I’m learning to leave behind.

On my various travels, I’ve met new people, some of whom I’ve written about in these blogs. At home, through my 12-step programs and the writing of this blog, I have also met new folks. And I’ve come to see people I’ve known before in new ways. Yes, I knew Brynna, who sent me the Krista Tippett’s podcast, in high school, but not well. Only in the last few years have I come to see what a delightful person she is. While in Arizona, I took an afternoon away from my retreat to have coffee with Richard, with whom I’d grown up, but had had almost no contact with from grade school to about a year ago. Both he and his wife Alexandra are two of the friendliest and most intriguing people I’ve come to know.

Reading new writers has always been part of any of my pilgrimages or retreats, whether in Arizona, Scotland, or here in Brunswick, Maine. Lately I’ve been reading Martin Laird, whose three books on silence have become the foundation for what I euphemistically call my spiritual life; Beldan Lane, who writes of nature in a way that resonates with and through me; the mystery writer Jo Nesbo; and David Mitchell, author of Atlas Shrugged, The Bone Clocks, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’m also reading new works by authors I think of as old friends—Patricia Hampl, Pam Houston—and rereading works like The Aeneid and the novels of Wallace Stegner with new eyes.

The grandchildren are now almost seven, four, and three, and are new people every visit. And so, if I pay attention, is my wife.

Mary Lee, my companion on all my travels, is on her own personal pilgrimage, and at dinner we sit and talk about our new discoveries that day. My 12-step work on codependency has shown me that If she and I are to keep growing, we need to give each other the space to do so. Especially since our retirements (at least from paying jobs), it’s important for me to see my wife through new eyes, both mine and hers.

It was after my eighteen-year-old daughter’s death from cancer that I began to find solace in traveling. Then, as I began to see parallels between my journeys to other lands and my journey through the landscape of grief and grace, these trips became pilgrimages. Laurie has been dead now for over thirty years, and each year, she becomes less of a memory and more of a daily presence in my life, no matter where I am. There’s part of me that feels guilty for saying this, but I struggle to recall what my daughter looked like. Seeing her picture on the table in the hall with all the rest of my family usually shocks me a bit. The other day, when I was talking with a student from forty-five years ago, now a dentist working on a novel in which an eighteen-year-old girl is dying, I realized as I was telling Chris about how the girl’s father might feel, that I can talk of Laurie’s suffering and death with detachment. Usually, in November and December, the anniversary of the final two months of my daughter’s life, I’m both physically and emotionally fragile. Last year, however, these months were, for the most part, joyous occasions for friends and family visits. Laurie’s suffering and death, her compassion and joy, our walks together, our disagreements, our shared laughter and tears, have all become one breath, inhaling and exhaling, keeping me alive, while making me less fearful of my own dying. Laurie is not in some far-off land, waiting for me to join her at some future time, but here, now, as I’m coming to believe are all our loved ones.

So, does looking at my life as a series of daily pilgrimages make any difference in the larger scope of things? Well, it’s probably not going to solve the immigration crisis or eliminate global warming, but it is helpful for my serenity to look back and see my life as full of mystery and paradox: wounds that heal; forty, sixty, seventy-year relationships that have become new; togetherness built on separation; physical absence and spiritual presence. And it’s this looking back that makes me less afraid of the future, both of my own and of the world’s.

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Being in Tanzania

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I traveled to Tanzania with no expectations. My reason for going was to accompany my wife, for whom Africa had been a dream since she was in grade school. Yet, when I returned two weeks later, I felt I’d been on one of the most spiritually significant pilgrimages of my life. Whether or not I’ll say this five years from now remains to be seen, but right now, I’m reflecting on my exterior and interior journeys.

What keeps coming back to me is a comment our guide, Abel, made the morning he drove Mary Lee and me to the Serengeti Plains. We’d begun to see tall, red-robed people herding hump-backed cattle on the hills. He told us these were Africa’s iconic Masai, the semi-nomadic tribe who live in Kenya and Tanzania, continuing their age-old customs, persisting in speaking their own language, in spite of both governments’ instituted programs to encourage them to assimilate into the general culture.

“I like the Masai,” Abel said. “They are proud just to be.”

Since then, I’ve become aware of how hard it is for me to feel that way. Oh, I can remember when I was proud to be a varsity basketball player; when I was (and am) proud to be a teacher; proud to be a parent and grandparent; proud to be an American. But proud just to be? The idea has always been as foreign to me as a Masai diet of blood and curdled milk. I was raised always to consider, “What will the neighbors think?” To get my worth from how others perceive me.

The problem is that I make assumptions about how others see me, which has led to a lifetime of anxiety and resentments. With no idea who I was after I stopped playing basketball, I went into a depression that lasted almost four years. Even after thirty years of teaching, I considered myself an abysmal failure as a human being if I had a bad class. When my daughter died from cancer, convinced people saw me as a poor parent who couldn’t look after his child, my pride in being a father turned to shame. In Africa, I found myself embarrassed to admit to being from the United States for fear of being seen as a supporter of the policies of our current government.

And as the morning continued, and I got used to seeing the Masai and the motorcycles and the open fires and the outdoor furniture stores beside the road on our long drive to the Serengeti, my mind reverted to playing the same old home movies it always does when it wanders. I’m back in high school, changing the outcome of the state basketball championship game, winning by 20 points this time instead of losing by that much. I’m arguing today’s politics with some of those same teammates whose views now differ 180 degrees from mine, destroying their feeble arguments with my brilliant sarcasm. I’m dying of lung cancer, stomach cancer, melanoma, cancer of the esophagus, or Parkinson’s Disease. I’m making plans to change my life when I get back from this trip, eating more fruits and vegetables, giving up cheese and chocolate, losing ten pounds, growing another beard, maybe getting another tattoo. All of which, I see now, are just more examples of getting my identity from what I imagine other people think of me.

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But after lunch, we entered the Serengeti— miles and miles of lion-brown plains dotted with feathery trees under a vast sky. Abel raised the roof of his Land Cruiser. Mary Lee and I stood and began to see animals: gazelles and antelope at first, then the occasional ostrich and wart hog. In the distance, a road seemed to move until we came closer and saw that it was a large herd of cape buffalo chugging across the landscape. On a large boulder, a lion gazed into the distance.

Slowly, my mind started to shift its focus, still returning, however, between animals, to those old illusions and assumptions.

Until, in the late afternoon, we saw a circle of land cruisers around an Acacia Tree. Pulling in, I could make out a female lion sleeping on a limb. At first, peering through the same sarcastic lens through which I often see things, I found the scene ridiculous—a half-dozen vehicles, at least that many telephoto lenses and maybe twenty people, all watching one lion trying to sleep? Then Abel gave me his binoculars and I watched the lion stretching and contracting her front legs. She swished her tail, arched her back, and moved higher into the tree. Onyx-colored eyes glanced at me dispassionately. She yawned, revealing a large tongue and sharp teeth. Behind her, the air seemed to glow golden and great clouds towered.

When I handed the binoculars back to Abel, most of the other land cruisers had left. I realized I had no idea how long I’d been looking at the lion. Suddenly (a word that’s easy for me to overuse, but in this case it really was sudden) I felt a feeling of peace, of “evenness,” of lightness, followed by a sense of gratitude—Wow! I just got to see that. Thank you!

The feeling didn’t last of course, but over the next week it did return and last longer: lying in our tent at night, listening to the hyenas’ r-r-r-upe, r-r-r-rip, and the heavy breathing of what we found out later were two old male buffalo who liked to wander the grounds; the sight of over a hundred hippopotamuses wedged together like sausages in a river; herds of twenty to fifty elephants parading down to another river to drink and splash and roll in the mud; a cheetah and her two cubs prowling through the grass; seven giraffe standing silhouetted on a ridge; the strange baobab trees, a prehistoric species that predates both mankind and the splitting of the continents over 200 million years ago, whose branches look like roots, and whose gnarled bark has been worn by wind and rain and millennia of elephants using them for scratching posts.

Now I wonder if what happened was that I was, simply, being. If I set aside the old baggage I usually carry around, so that I became more open with no preconceived ideas of what I thought I needed to prove to someone else. It’s not so much that I lost the sense of who I was, it’s that I became more of who I was: in union with a much larger whole, not just a bunch of weird looking animals, but an energy, a spirit, if you will, running through animals, trees, grass, sky, clouds, Abel, Mary Lee, and me.  I may not have been “proud just to be,” but I certainly was grateful.

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Even if you don’t journey to honor a saint or to see a holy place, I think any trip can become a pilgrimage when the exterior journey triggers an interior one. Brother David Vryhof of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist recently wrote: “A pilgrimage typically involves three experiences: leaving something, gaining something, and struggling with something.” I’m hoping I left some of my defensive, passive-aggressive sarcasm behind. I know the peace and lightness I experienced continues; I notice more. I’m thinking less about who or what I am and more about that I am.

The struggle is to try to maintain this sense of just being now that I’m back dealing with jet lag that lasted a week, the cough that I brought back that won’t go away (I know it’s probably not lung cancer, but…) the season’s first snow storms, obligations, and the memories that metastasize this time of year of my daughter’s last months in the hospital and her death two days before Christmas. I’m trying to think of being in Tanzania not as some abnormal “blip” outside of the reality of my usual assumptions and illusions, but as a step toward experiencing the greater reality I’ve occasionally glimpsed, and with it, gratitude for the life I have, and the serenity of not caring what the hell the neighbors think.

 

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On Emptiness

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Gazing at the figure, I felt a physical reaction, a shiver, or perhaps more like the quiver of a struck bell. And I guess I wasn’t the only one who resonated to Romanian artist Albert Gyorgy’s “Melancolie”: the sculpture went viral on Facebook a few weeks ago. I wasn’t surprised that many comments came from viewers who’d suffered a great loss. A fellow grieving father responded: “We may look as if we carry on with our lives as before. We may even have times of joy and happiness. Everything may seem ‘normal.’ But THIS, ‘Emptiness,’ is how we feel … all the time.”

Later that same week, I mentioned to an old friend that the hole left in my heart by the death of my daughter would never go away. He seemed surprised and upset. “I had no idea,” he said. “I thought because you’re a Christian, your faith would sustain you. I feel sorry for you.”

No, I wanted to say, don’t feel sorry for me. My faith does help me. My life isn’t sad. My life is in some ways more joyful than it’s ever been. I continue to have a close relationship with Laurie. I—

And as I felt myself thrashing about, frustrated at not having the words to describe what it’s like to lose a child, I realized what an intricate and perplexing landscape this emptiness through which I journey really is.

There’s the idea of emptiness as Void, empty of meaning. It’s a frightening place. When my ex-wife phoned me with the news that what we’d always thought was a harmless sebaceous cyst on the back of our daughter’s head was malignant, I felt the ground opening under my feet. I remember needing to grab on to the counter I was standing beside. Mary Lee has since told me that when I picked her up at school later that day and she opened the door to the car, she felt an icy emptiness even before I told her the news.

The title of the sculpture, “Melancolie,” or melancholy, refers back to medieval medicine and to one of the four “humours,” black bile, thought to cause what we today call depression. This, too, is a kind of emptiness, at least when I look at some of the therapy websites that define emptiness as “a negative thought process leading to depression, addiction…”—both of which I’ve stumbled through since Laurie died.

But over those same years, I’ve also found that emptiness can be something to cultivate rather than cure.

My first readings about emptiness were from existentialists like Albert Camus, who saw meaninglessness as a reality of life, but who posited that we can and should create our own meaning. From there, I dabbled in Buddhism, where Emptiness is a central precept. But as I understand it, Buddhists do not believe life is meaningless; rather, that our images of ourselves as separate, independent entities don’t exist: they’re delusions, empty of meaning. When we can understand this meaning of emptiness, we realize that we are part of what the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being,” which is the basis for wisdom, bliss, compassion, clarity, and courage.

Then, as I’ve written about before in these blogs, I learned a form of Christian meditation called “Centering Prayer,” which is based on “kenosis,” or “self-emptying.” As Saint Paul wrote in Philippians: Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave ….” Notice how many of the parables in the Bible advocate giving up everything, whether it’s Jesus telling the young man to give up his money and possessions and follow him, or the Good Samaritan giving up his money and time to minister to the man who’d been beaten and robbed, or the servant condemned for burying his one Talent.

And it was through practicing kenosis—entering into the emptiness I felt after Laurie died, giving up my image of myself as grieving parent—that I was able to feel Laurie’s renewed presence in my life. (For more on my experiences with Centering Prayer, see http://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/06/)

Lately, I’ve been working a 12-Step program based on surrender, which as a speaker I heard recently said, “only happens when there’s nothing left.” Only when circumstances force you to see that all of your props, your addictions, have not only proved worthless in giving you what you need, but are actually keeping you unhappy, is it possible for you to give them up, empty yourself of them.

And yet. No matter how much I read about the subject, how often Laurie’s spiritual presence fills my emptiness, my daughter’s physical absence burns like an amputation. I will never have the chance to watch her face grow more interesting as it ages, never watch her take up a vocation, fall in love, perhaps have children.

And maybe that’s the price we pay for loving someone. A friend of mine who lost her husband a year ago recently sent me the following quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor and theologian:

Nothing can fill the gap when we are away from those we love, and it would be wrong to try to find anything. We must simply hold out and win through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time, it is a great consolation, since leaving the gap unfilled preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. He does not fill it but keeps it empty so that  our communion with another may be kept alive, even at the cost of pain.

So, emptiness for me is another landscape through which I pilgrimage—four steps forward, three steps back, two steps side-ways, circling, backtracking. Sometimes the views are bleak and dismal and the path is strewn with the rocks and roots of depression and addiction, but more and more often these days, as I’ve surrendered my seventy-year-old resentments at people long gone from my life, my judgmentalism, my shame over not being perfect, I’ve seen some magnificent vistas, felt fresh air tickling what little hair I have left, heard birds singing hymns of grace.

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The Carnival Wheel

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An out-of-key calliope brays and a tinny voice cuts through the night: “Round and round she goes, and where she stops, nobody knows!” Neon lights blaze from the food booths, their greasy smells mingling with those of horse manure and engine oil. The ground under my feet shakes from the vibration of motors turning rides like “The Thriller” and “The Dragon Wagon.” Mary Lee and I tiptoe around a mud puddle, buy a bottle of water, and sit on a bench in front of the Big Eli Wheel, or, as I used the call it when I was growing up, the Ferris Wheel.

Off and on for the past seventy years, I’ve been making a pilgrimage to some version of this carnival. These days, Smokey’s Greater Shows is part of Yarmouth Maine’s Clam Festival, a three-day celebration featuring a parade, artists and artisans, music, games, and clams fixed in just about every possible way. Compared to the downhome atmosphere that surrounds it, the carnival seems likes a drunken rhinestone cowboy who refuses to leave the block party. Still, I’ve always found an energy here absent from the tents up the street selling carved driftwood and Wicked Good Pickles.

In the early 1950’s, when the trucks first rolled through town—red and yellow letters along their sides and pictures of parrots and snakes and tigers or deformed men and mysterious women with almond shaped eyes, I’d stand straddling my bicycle on the sidewalk in front of faded white houses and rust-red stores, trying to get my breath, feeling the noise of the revved engines and ground gears, a hot rush of air tickling my crew cut, stinging my eyes, and pulling me along to the local baseball field where the carnival would set up for another July weekend.

My favorite days were Wednesdays and Thursdays before the carnival actually opened. I loved to watch the heavy-bellied men in brown fedoras setting up the Ferris Wheel, their eyes peering through the smoke of their cigarettes. Some men had mustaches, and some had tattoos of hearts or crosses or eagles—adornments I never saw on my father, or anybody else for that matter, in those Eisenhower days. The summer I was eleven or twelve, a carnie who my father said was “drunker than a skunk” climbed the Ferris wheel in pursuit of someone who’d been taunting him, slipped, and fell to his death. The Portland Press Herald ran a front-page picture of a semicircle of workers, their faces stained by shadows. Which confirmed what I already knew: these men were dangerous; and therefore, cool as hell.

When I was sixteen, the Ferris Wheel became new all over again when I rode it with the girl from Massachusetts I’d met that night: her leg against mine, her head resting against my arm across the back of the bench seat, the two of us alone in the night sky looking down on the world. This is how it will be, I thought, when I’m rich and famous—this feeling of rising out of this hick town and having everyone below gape up in admiration.

Almost sixty years later, I look up at the Big Eli Wheel. Metal and neon lights and florescent seats turn around and around, people ascending and descending, screaming and laughing, I think of how much of my life I’ve spent trying to leave the ordinary behind, rise above the overdeveloped shame and guilt that comes from growing up in an alcoholic family. In college, I loved climbing mountains and the god-like feeling I had when I reached the summits. After my daughter died, and I became interested in theology and spirituality, I discovered the word “transcendence,” a word meaning being in a state above or beyond the ordinary. I took up various forms of meditation, striving for “peak experiences” that would lift me from the pain of her death.

But the problem with thinking of transcendence as being at the top of a carnival ride is that the Ferris Wheel always returns to earth—that the gorgeous chick from Massachusetts says she’s sorry but she’s going steady with some guy back in Worchester. I find myself on a Wheel of Fortune on which my ego rises and falls, depending upon circumstances.

I’ve spent years on this wheel: one moment glorying in clouds of respect, love, and praise, convinced I’m a great teacher, a great writer, a great lover; and the next minute mired in depression, confusion, anger, feeling like an abysmal failure at everything I’ve ever done. Of knowing that God has anointed me with special favor; and then convinced that God is some kind of super sadist, playing with me the way a seven-year-old toys with an ant.

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The water bottle is empty, but I’m still contemplating The Big Eli Wheel. It rests on a turquoise, pink, yellow, and purple frame, pastel colored cabs with caps and room for four, like painted mushrooms, rising and falling. Spokes fan out from the center of the wheel.

More and more these days, I’m finding the best way for me to achieve serenity is not to try to rise above feelings like shame and guilt but to go more deeply into them, try to find their core, their center. And I’m wondering if, instead of being at the top of the wheel closer to the heavens, the God of My Not Understanding isn’t really at the center, anchoring me as I spin on Fortune’s wheel between heaven and earth, the spiritual and the profane, success and failure.

I watch two women in their early twenties, I’d guess, with dyed red hair walk by, and from the other direction, two guys with shaved heads and tattoos of screaming eagles, hearts and crosses. One guy says something and both women giggle. Everyone stops. They talk and giggle some more and then walk off together.

Mary Lee takes my hand. We stroll past a teen-aged couple with matching high school jackets, the carnival lights sparkling off their braces as they grin at each another. I see parents buying candy and going on rides with their children. A woman about our age laughs and waves to a little girl who’s probably her granddaughter riding the merry-go-round. A middle-aged couple in jeans comes towards toward us. They’re also holding hands. The man says, “Doctors say holding hands lowers blood pressure by fourteen per cent.” We all laugh.

And I know what’s holding my life together, in spite of all of its ups and downs: the same thing that centers my faith: what I’m looking for even more than transcendence.

Leaving the carnival, I look back at the Big Eli Wheel, circling between the pastel sky and the muddy ground strewn with popcorn and soggy napkins. The spokes radiating out from the center blaze in the setting sunlight.

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