Numbering Our Days in the Wilderness

“‘And Max stepped into his private boat, and waved goodbye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.’”

This is a line from a story within a story—The Vigilance of Stars, by Patricia O’Donnell.

“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Her daughter Emma O’Donnell chooses this psalm in a different translation to begin her narrative entitled Remembering the Future. The book’s subtitle is The Experience of Time in Jewish and Christian Liturgy. Picking up this book again, I began thinking of wilderness experience, and of her mother’s novel, The Vigilance of Stars, some of which takes place in the Maine wilderness. I’d begun reading it with memories of Dr. O’Donnell’s narrative of memory and hope embodied in Time.

I’ve wanted to read these books because of both their Maine connection and a curious personal interest. I’m what is called a Maineiac, as opposed to being a Mainer. The former is one who moves to Maine (“from away,” naturally) and loves it.  The Mainer is someone born here, whom one supposes embodies the older Maine way of thinking and living derived from settler ancestors. (Please do not let the urban dictionary tell you a Maineiac is a descendent of settlers or one born in the state.) Emma, also, was born elsewhere, her mother was. I do not recall actually meeting Emma but remember that, as a child, she thought well of my story “Sphere Flyer” when I read it in a writers’ get-together at the University of Maine at Farmington. Her mother, Pat O’Donnell, was my creative writing mentor there. She later told me about Emma’s encouraging response to the story. I wonder how old Emma was at the time. Was she twelve years old, for instance?

Anyway, when I saw the title, Remembering the Future, I had to read it. And I reached back in memory to that story of mine, and maybe understood just a little bit more about this book and Emma’s interest in Time. Because the sphere flyer was an orphaned storm petrel making his way, without any apparent guide, from the breeding grounds of his birth in the Antarctic to the feeding seas far northward across the great sphere of our earth, into waters adjacent to those of Maine. 

One need not modify the place name at the bottom (so to say) of the planet: The name Antarctica says it all. By the way, every storm petrel is an orphan. The new-born Wilson’s storm petrels are left isolated, fat and fluffy, in mineral crevices, narrow tunnels on the Antarctic Peninsula, left behind by their departing parents. They’ve never seen sunlight and cannot even get out of their icy nests until they’ve starved some, that is, lost all their body fat. One can say their parents fed them well before the mass desertion: These tunnel-fledglings are so fat they can scarcely move inside the sheltering talus. The idea of teaching one to fly in that condition is ludicrous. Inside their individual crevices, totally ignorant in their extreme isolation, the individual chicks send out lonely unanswered little peeps. They are unable even to walk. Fasting, finally each is slim enough to follow the eerie twilight filtering into its stony tunnel. The Wilson’s storm petrel may be spotted feeding off waves by mariners in Maine’s Gulf and beyond. But they do not touch land during the round-trip until mating time, on reaching the Peninsula again at the bottom of the world. The story of Skipjack’s emergence in flight is my husband’s favorite story written by S. Dorman. 

All this interweaves with our story of lostness in the great earthly wilderness, and the rescue of Liturgy in remembering the future. I should say I don’t have much personal connection to formal Liturgy, nor to being lost in the Maine wilderness, though both are future possibilities. I call the formal Liturgy, as shown in Emma O’Donnell’s narrative, a rescue. But the informal liturgy, that of a ritual in daily life, can also be saving. Saving, here, means not salvation, but rescue. The regulated litany of daily life is a call for help. The formal Liturgy is a call for rescue but in a beautiful synchronized form.

We are calling for a rescue. Who, in our labors, are we calling to? 

Life is regulated by its bodily, psychic, and spiritual needs: eating, drinking, sleeping, waking, walking; laughing, crying, fearing, rejoicing, languishing, frantic action; praying, comfort, communion, intuition, and a certain sense of companionship, sometimes in the presence of another creature (family, friends), sometimes a presence of Spirit. In such experiences our sense of isolation and loneliness vanishes. 

Documented in newspapers and his Lost On a Mountain in Maine, Donn Fendler, a 12-year-old boy was lost in the Maine woods for nine days. He said, “Sometimes it seemed Someone else was talking to me. They wanted me out of the woods, going home. They would keep me sane if I listened.”

And here we bring in expressions by many religious, in Emma’s narrative of religious communities, remembering the future. We see the wider community of believers in the country praying for Donn: This is what we do when we believe in God. God was there with Donn in the wilderness, God wanted loved ones and strangers to pray for Donn to make his way out and return home. The formal Liturgy is not focused on the individual but the community of believers, ancestral and current. It is a metaphorical mass migration from one time and place to another.

In our lives, experience is punctuated by day and night. The two features figured also in the storm petrel Skipjack’s journey, which begins in the long “day” of the South Pole and is triggered in part by shortening light beginning the long polar night. Thereafter, as Skipjack travels and matures in mass migration, day and night are slimmed-down to their usual contours familiar to us in our daily and seasonal lives. 

This is what Remembering the Future is about. The liturgy of these religions carries the memory of all that has gone before us as a people. For the religious there is no division of peoples, past-present-future. We are all experiencing, in a variation of pattern, the suffering of…. Whom? We are all experiencing the suffering of others, past, present, future, including the One suffering at the foundation of the world. We are helping to bear one another’s burdens. Pointed out in this book is the possibility of all times being present in this time, even as God is—in overflowing all places (space, stars) and time.

It comes as a surprise to us that Creation is founded in suffering. There is no making or remaking without it. The structuring of light out of nothing, or abysmal chaos is an act of suffering.

Rabbis may distinguish between history and memory, preferring the latter because memory participates emotionally in a catalog of ancestry, slavery, Exodus, wandering, establishment after battle in the promised land; the temple rising, being destroyed (twice) through great effort and suffering—all are best experienced in the meditations of memory. The participants are there in all this with ancestors, and these ancestors are here with us in so doing. All are looking forward in memory and hope to the end of Time, the eschaton, and salvation of the coming Messiah.

Twelve-year-old Donn Fendler does not completely despair. He remembers what the Boy Scouts taught him: among other things, “ Keep your head.” Remember rules for being lost in the wilderness. These rules are written in stone: “Follow streams downward, they will lead you to campers, to civilization.” And his faithful familial and communal pray-ers—meaning all of those praying—were living it with him. Though it happened many decades ago I’ve lived it with him in receiving his narrative, in the network of telling and retelling this amazing true story of a child living his wilderness ordeal, solely to be brought out in great and tender country-wide rejoicing.

The sole indication I have of Donn’s specific religious denomination is his thanksgiving in this audio retelling of his diurnal and nocturnal adventures. He gave thanks and was still saying prayers for those, both living and deceased, those who prayed for him to come out safely, alive. So I would say Donn is a Roman Catholic. I’m Protestant and though I’m pretty loose about these after-this-life human relations to loved ones and others, I would lean more toward being prayed for by the great Afterlife than praying for it. And I hope to be one of them praying for my own descendants. For me, this life is purgatory enough for anyone. Even for God, who suffered most to bring Creation and the Cosmos—the World—into well-made being. And suffered again to remake it all—in faith lovingly—Morally New.

What is the difference between history and memory? The documentation of history can help with remembering but cannot bring a person into the past-present-future the way remembering with solidarity can. 

In her introduction, before Dr. O’Donnell gets into the “elusiveness of time,” she says religious narratives remember that Time is created by God, enfolding and unfolding God’s will. Everywhere God is presupposed by the religious to be a Person—thinking, feeling, creating, and interacting on all levels with His own creation. The litany of days and nights is helping us get organized… and stay that way. Helping us be alert, keep our heads, and go on in the presence of the past and the future. It is an organized present we are living with the whole of space-time. Do you see the patterns, recognize them in our traditions and histories? The first lights of all beginning are with us still in the night skies, long after they have died.

One of Dr. O’Donnell’s section titles is “Performing Time.” Ritualized formal Liturgy is a performance, a practiced recitation in chant, song, procession, prayer and supplication, and the sacraments—in short a performance of devotion in Time.  Partaking in formal liturgy, we are enacting the inventory of God’s grace in Time. This scholar says we are integrated, integral, expressing solidarity with God in this performance. Formally we separate from the everyday litany to take part in a formality of life in Time, artistically sub-created in the image of God’s own creative everyday acts in everyday life. But in this formalized expression we go deeper, remembering it all together, focusing our attention exclusively on Him. The crucifix goes at the fore of our enactment, its cross bearing the darkened image of the suffering Christ. The Word of God who suffered, died, freed the captives, resurrected, and is worshiped by those who believe.

In our regional newspaper I was struck by the image of a procession held in Maine’s basilica for a World Day of Prayer for the Sick, and to help and bless healthcare workers. A 12-year-old (he may have been) boy, was fierce, solemn, leading other altar boys. Wearing a dark cassock with white surplice—holding up the long slender golden cross. Its agonized artistic figure held above him. This young cross-bearer was passing before his younger brothers, who turned to look at him in wonder.

It is an act of wonder this liturgy of devotion we endure, survive, rejoice in every day of our lives. We give thanks.

We sometimes echo Donn’s prayer. Donn, who after coming out of the wilderness to his bowl of soup, remembered—when alone and about to sleep—to thank God who brought him out.

As an adult, he tells—in his as-told-to audio story, the charm of which I cannot magnify enough—that he remembered God. Saved, he had not yet thanked Him for all He’d done.

“So I shut my eyes and prayed my prayers.”

He thanked God for the kind help in the wilderness. And for all his praying ancestors.

I’m kidding in that last sentence.