Fathers, we must part

Joe Golowka at 93

Joe Golowka at 93

Still, if it is a dream, let us indulge it a moment longer. Let us believe that some things last,
and some places and some people are not touched by change.

– Virginia Woolf[i]

When anyone spends nearly a hundred years on this earth, their departure hardly feels untimely. But it leaves a hole which is hard to get used to. They were always there––and now they’re not. When my mentor and fatherly friend Joe Golowka died in his sleep around dawn yesterday, a month before his ninety-ninth birthday, I knew it was coming. But I still felt the shock of sudden absence.

I first met Joe six years after losing my father. Heart attack, 62 years old. Fatherless in my twenties, I needed considerably more mentoring, and Joe supplied it with gentleness and warmth. His family welcomed me as one of their own, and I cherish many happy memories of hanging out at their house for barbecues, swimming and cheering on the Dodgers and Lakers. I had a priestly role in two family baptisms and a wedding, and the whole clan drove a thousand miles to celebrate my own marriage. Whenever I visit them, I don’t need to knock before entering.

Joe enjoyed many things, but his love for the California mountains was our closest bond. He started teenage backpacking adventures in the Sierra for the Episcopal dioceses of Los Angeles and San Diego, and we first met in 1972 when he recruited me to be chaplain for his annual excursions. I possessed a little backpacking experience at the time, and had been training my eyes and heart for nature by reading Thoreau and John Muir. But Joe soon became my best teacher in the physical and spiritual dimensions of wilderness walking.

He gave a master class in the art of paying attention. Don’t race down the trail. Take your time. Stop and look. Wait patiently for nature to show itself. Get down on the ground, climb a tree, try a different angle. From the tiniest orchid to the grandest sunset, he wouldn’t let you miss anything of what John Muir called “these vast, calm, measureless mountain days … opening a thousand windows to show us God.”[ii] Joe’s voice––Don’t forget to look!––still keeps me company when I hike alone. And hundreds of his other trail companions would tell you the same.

There is a Zen story about a monk who was meditating by the window of his mountain cabin when a thief broke in. The monk did not react, but just kept on meditating. His eyes were not on the thief, but on the full moon passing between the pines. The thief took what little there was, then slipped back into the night. “Poor fellow,” said the monk. “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.” Joe was like that monk. He gave us the moon, and so much more.

In 2003, I planned an eight-day solo hike in the eastern Sierra. Since I would finish many miles south of my starting point, I needed to leave my car at the hike’s terminus (the bottom of a 9-mile, 6000’ descent to high desert from 12,000’ Taboose Pass), and then get myself 17 miles up the highway to the trailhead at Big Pine Creek. As it happened, Joe was on a fishing trip in the area, and he offered to provide my shuttle ride.

In his mid-eighties at the time, Joe had reluctantly given up mountain hiking a few years before. But during his fishing trips in the Owens Valley east of the Sierra, he would sometimes visit his favorite trails, walking a short stretch to bid them farewell. So when I began my walk, Joe kept me company for the first mile, until we reached a bridge below a grand cascade. We stood on the bridge for a while, leaning on the railing in wordless contemplation of the roaring falls. Then we crossed to the other side, where the trail began a steep ascent into a forest of incense cedar and Jeffrey pine. Joe had gone as far as he could. He looked down at the trail for a moment, and offered his regrets. “I wish I could come with you”, he said. It wasn’t just me he was addressing, but the trail itself. How hard to surrender something you love so much.

To live in this world you must be able to do three things, says Mary Oliver.

to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[iii]

Nine days ago, my wife’s father, Art, died peacefully in hospice at his home, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. When his body began to give out last fall, he did not talk much about what lay ahead, but once his last days arrived, he seemed to know exactly what to do. His attention began to shift from this world to the next as he went inward, responding less and less to the empirical world in which he had lived and moved for 87 years. He was letting go. Going home.

I’ve almost gained my heavenly home,
My spirit loudly sings.
Behold, they come, the holy ones,
I hear the sound of wings.[iv]

In Art’s last hours, his family laid hands on him as I said the Last Rites: Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world . . . Then my wife Karen, wearing a stole she had just brought back from a Holy Land pilgrimage, anointed her father with oil. As evening fell he breathed his last, and departed in peace.

It is no denial of grief to mark the holiness of such a dying. Absent the tragedy of an untimely death, or the anguish of a painful one, we may glimpse even through our tears what a solemn and beautiful mystery it is to pass from the temporal to the eternal.

Jerusalem, my happy home,
When shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrows have an end,
Thy joys when shall I see?[v]

Jeffrey pines, Sierra Nevada

Jeffrey pines, Sierra Nevada

When Joe and I parted at that Big Pine Creek trailhead, he blessed me with an affectionate hug, and I began my long climb. As I trudged upward, he called out after me, giving the same admonition I’d first heard in his gruff voice thirty years earlier: “Don’t stare at the trail! Your feet can see the trail just fine. Look around, see everything, enjoy everything.” Then he turned and started back toward the trailhead. I stopped to watch until he disappeared into the trees.

In the space of eight winter days, I have lost two fathers. Joe’s departure was like Art’s––peaceful, in his own bed, surrounded by family. When I got the news by phone, it was snowing outside. Suddenly the power went off and the call dropped. It felt like Joe’s final message to me: Hey Jim, get off the phone and go outside. This snowfall is too beautiful to miss!

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1960)

[ii] John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), Chapter 2, June 23, 1869, p. 35

[iii] “In Blackwater Woods,” Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 178

[iv] “Angel Band,” text by Jefferson Hascall (1860), tune by William Batchelder Bradbury (1862). This is one of the songs we sang at Art’s bedside.

[v] c. 16th century, The Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1982), #620

One vast miracle

Perseids (sm)

Tonight after sunset I will drive over the Cascades to a dark plain 200 miles east of Seattle to watch the Perseid meteor shower, summer’s great nocturnal spectacular. This will be the best one in five years, as there will be no moon to dilute the blackness of space. A night sky free from city lights is an awesome sight. Throw in up to 100 meteors per hour, and it is pure wonder.

Loren Eiseley, a scientist whose nature writings deeply shaped my own sensibility toward the natural world, said that “the word miraculous has been defined as an event transcending the known laws of nature … We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each of us in [our] personal life repeats that miracle.”

Whether lying in an August meadow with my father as a boy, or trekking to an 11,000′ mesa to keep watch till dawn, I have been religious about keeping my appointment with the Perseids. The photograph above was taken two years ago, when I set my camera to make a series of 30-second exposures starting at midnight. This year’s peak should be about 1 am. I will keep my eyes open as best I can until first light, then drive into the rising sun to spend a week in an alpine lakes basin north of Yellowstone.

I have backpacked in the mountains of the West almost every summer since 1971. It is a week of holy obligation, a blend of adventure, beauty and silence without which my year would be incomplete and my soul undernourished. As a young priest, I helped lead many teenage backpacks in California’s Sierra Nevada. Toward the end of those week-long hikes we would devote an evening to campfire reflections followed by quiet time under the stars.

The first time we did this, I read them a passage from Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey, describing one of his bone-hunting expeditions in the Dakota badlands. “Fifty million years lay under my feet,” he wrote, “fifty million years of bellowing monsters moving in a green world now gone so utterly that its very light was travelling on the farther edge of space.” He then listed the chemicals in the soil of that dry and barren land, imagining the strange wild creatures they had once constituted. “The iron did not remember the blood it had once moved within, the phosphorous had forgot the savage brain. The little individual moment had ebbed from all those strange combinations of chemicals as it would ebb from our living bodies into the sinks and runnels of oncoming time.”

But then Eiseley looked up, and saw in the last light of day a flock of warblers hurrying across the sky. Like their extinct ancestors, those birds were also complex combinations of chemicals. And the very fact of their animate life in a “dead” land struck him as a perfect instance of nature transcending “night and nothingness.”

As I read, the campers’ young faces glowed with rapt attention in our circle of firelight. Everything we had experienced together in those mountains seemed transfigured by Eiseley’s words. The “natural” world, in which we lived and moved and had our being, felt radiant with wonder under the spell of his poetic perception. After the reading, we sang a few songs, then dispersed into the darkness beyond the fire to keep a time of quiet.

When I first announced that we would have a “quiet night,” some of the teens expressed concern. At other church camps, they had experienced enforced silence as somewhat uncomfortable. Being alone with one’s thoughts, particularly in the company of others, could feel awkward and unnatural. I assured them that absolute silence was not necessary, that conversations were fine, as long as they maintained the reflective spirit of the evening. So while some did go off by themselves, others engaged in thoughtful exchanges sotto voce. As bedtime neared, I returned to the fire one more time. Two girls were quietly reading to each other from my copy of The Immense Journey:

I had lifted up a fistful of that ground. I held it while that wild flight of south-bound warblers hurtled over me into the oncoming dark. There went phosphorous, there went iron, there went carbon, there beat the calcium in those hurrying wings. Alone on a dead planet I watched that incredible miracle speeding past. It ran by some true compass over field and waste land. It cried its individual ecstasies into the air until the gullies rang, It swerved like a single body, it knew itself and, lonely, it bunched itself close in the racing darkness, its individual entities feeling about them in the rising night. And so, crying to each other their identity, they passed away out of my view.

… As I walked into my camp late that night, one man, rousing from his blankets beside the fire, asked sleepily, “What did you see?”

“I think, a miracle,” I said softly, but I said it to myself. Behind me that vast waste began to glow under the rising moon.