Bike ride, part 2: I happen upon a bare-breasted young woman and then pedal to a place of prayer, where I find myself kneeling among the dead
After I left Patti behind to battle her cancer, I continued on, not knowing which direction I would take at any intersection that lay ahead. When I reached the first, Seldon and Wards, I went straight through, towards Church.
And when I reached Church Road, I turned toward the nearest mountains, the Talkeetna's, even though I knew I would not be able to get up into them.
This has always been my tendency - to turn away from the greater concentrations of people, toward the lesser, or best yet, towards none at all.
When I reached the bottom of the hill that descends to the Little Susitna and came to the bridge that crosses it, my eyes went straight to the aqua green raft and the young man preparing it for launch. As you can see, he, like his three friends behind him, was shirtless.
I stopped on the bridge and then began to compose my photo, keeping my concentration on the raft and the young man with it. For the sake of composition, I noted the positions of the three who were behind him, but did not study them as I studied him. Two were working to ready gear for transport to the raft while the other lay chest-up on an ice-cooler soaking up sunrays.
"Where you headed?" I shouted to the young man at the raft, "all the way to the mouth?"
He looked up, startled, and then answered, "No, we're going to a place near Houston."
The sound of our voices also startled the sunbather, who sat up on the ice chest, then got up and started walking about. It was then that I noticed she was a woman, a rather finely sculpted one at that.
And if I were to include the picture that I took just before this one, when she was still lying on the ice chest, her breasts bare and aimed at the sky, you would wonder how I could not have noticed earlier.
But I am not going to show you that one.
She then walked over toward the boat. If she felt at all self-concious, she did not show it. I decided to end my interview and move on.
"I hope you enjoy your trip!" I shouted. "Have fun!"
"Thanks!" the guy attending to the raft shouted back. "We will!"
This afternoon, I took Melanie and Charlie out for coffee and afterward drove this very route and told them of the incident.
"That's so Wasilla!" Charlie said.
I pedaled away from the rafters, wondering why I have reached upper middle age so fast, why my body is aging and headed altogether too swiftly in the direction of old age, even as my mind, ambition and desire remain basically the same as when I was in my 20's.
In fact, I often believe that I am still in my 20's. Sometimes, I'm convinced that I always will be, no matter how many years I live.
Many times, especially on my late afternoon coffee breaks, I have passed by Grotto Iona, the Place of Prayer.
I have always been curious about the place, but have always kept going. Now I looked closely at the cross that marks the grotto and then read the smaller sign that hangs from it.
"Welcome," it said.
So I pedaled my bike into the driveway, laid it down upon the ground and entered this place of prayer.
Grotto Iona is not only a place of prayer, but a tiny graveyard, with but a handful of occupants. It is a quiet place and even though I do not share the faith of those who so lovingly built it and continue to care for it, I felt an atmosphere of peace here. It felt like a special place, a sacred place.
I am certain that people kneel before this shrine and pray, but I don't believe that way, so I didn't, but I did feel a strong sense of respect. I sensed the pain that people have brought here, including the worst kind of pain that humans can feel, the kind of sorrow that none of us who live long enough can avoid.
People have brought that pain here in the hope that they might exchange it for comfort. I suspect that sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they did not. Sometimes they succeeded for awhile, but then later it all came back. In time, it would have retreated into that place in the human heart where pain no longer brings tears or robs one of laughter, hope, and happiness, yet once put always resides.
Upon the mound contained inside that circle I saw this toy truck, which by vintage speaks of a sorrow that happened decades ago, yet the fact that it still stands upright, rusted though it be, states that this sorrow still lingers in at least one living, beating, human heart.
And now it resides in my heart as well.
I walked over to the big cross and found that it stood above the grave of a woman, eight years younger then me. She died on April 6, 2004.
A tiny angel with butterfly wings: placed in sadness, so sad to look upon - so utterly still, so quiet.
Within the fence that embraces the shrine there is a grave and it holds two people - Paul George Mahoney and his wife Iona Mae, who was three years younger then he but preceded him in death by just under six.
Perhaps that is why, atop the slab on this memorial a poem is inscribed, which you can read at the bottom of this post.
I read the poem first and then I looked at the picture of the Mahoney's, their hair and his beard white. I looked at my reflection, my hair still brown but my beard turning ever more white, and then decided that I wanted to photograph myself with them.
So I positioned myself just as you see here and placed the camera at a low angle so that it could see their portrait even as it captured me in self-portrait. As I did, I was surprised to notice that I was on my knees, in a place of prayer.
I was raised religious, but now consider myself to be agnostic. Agnostic is not the same as atheist. To me, agnostic means that you look around at both the wonders and brutalities of this world and the universe that it travels in and you marvel. You wonder how such a magnificent place could be created except by God, even as you wonder how God could be so cruel as to have laid so brutish a system of survival upon it.
It means that you look at all the religions and you do not know quite what to make of them. In the case of Christianity, from which I come, you see, at one and the same time, preachers of high position and stature stand at the pulpit and preach hatred toward those who are different than they say all should be, yet you see other preachers of the very same faith call for love and tolerance towards all their fellow humans, whatever their belief, race, gender or sexuality.
You see the cruel people, see the sincere and kind, all espousing the same faith, and then you learn these people exist in the spectrum of faith - Christianity... Hindu... Muslim... the Apache beliefs that nurtured your wife's forebearers, the Navajo beliefs of your daughter-in-law...
You hear the hymns, the gospel songs, the music of faith as it is performed only for commercial purposes and as it comes from the heart to bestow comfort upon those who mourn. You hear this spirit of comfort against hardship sung by your Mormon blood relatives, your born again and Protestant Christian friends on the Arctic Slope and throughout Native Alaska and, yes, you hear it in the songs of your new Hindu relatives in India.
You see that the true believers among them all are equally sincere, their faith rises just as strong within their divergent beliefs.
And so you conclude that, despite your upbringing, your own experience as a missionary, the preaching that you once did, the prayers you have pled, the days of fasting you have endured, the sweats you have sat through, the peyote administered in the midst of physical ordeal, the testimonies that you have heard and delivered - it is beyond your ability to know. It is all a mystery.
And then you see the reflection of yourself kneeling, an agnostic among the Catholic dead, in a place of prayer, and although you did not kneel to pray, you feel that it would be wrong for you to rise to your feet without doing so.
So you pray, not quite certain who you are praying to; you pray for Patti, whom you have just spoken to and who battles cancer for her very life... for your wife, that she might heal quickly and not fall again, for your children and their spouses, your grandson and the one that is coming, that they might be kept safe and live long and healthy; for the family of Senator Ted Kennedy who is being buried in the dark even as you kneel in the sun and for this nation that so struggles against itself... for all those Iñupiat friends and adopted family who have experienced and are experiencing so much loss; your friends of all ethnic backgrounds in all parts of Alaska, the USA, Canada, Greenland... for those in India who became your family only recently but are dear to you... in Africa...
Then I got up and walked away and saw this toy shovel, just inside the entrance to the grotto. I stepped through the gate, pulled my bike upright from the ground, straddled the seat and pedaled away.
And I gave myself an assignment - to find out who Paul Mahoney was, and Iona Mae, for whom the grotto is named. I can't do it right away. I don't have the time. But maybe later, in winter, when the projects that I now work on are done, when the night is long, when it is the time to learn of stories and to tell stories.
Blest with the Grace of a Saint
by Paul Mahoney
Many nights of bliss
many children to kiss
and still it comes to this.
That heaven I've missed
Nod with lady up there,
Eyes dimmed and stare
Frame needing repair
and soul wrought with care.
Ahah! Finally comes pay
The great Milky Way
that looms ever so bright
In the darkness of night
Each star but a step
Leading on to the next
Like hopscotch I'll go
be it quickly or slow.
So I'm circling around
And studying the ground
Where first star step be found.
And me thinks "it's the mound"
of a newly filled grave
so the one who lies there
May be off up the stair
Toward more heavenly air.