My latest essay ”On the Shelf” describes my experiences in Greenland (prior to the Covid pandemic). It’s a reflection on climate change, personal aging, and maybe a little bit more. I am delighted that it was chosen for the inaugural issue of the literary journal Adventures in Ideas.
I love the premise of this beautifully composed publication. As the editors say:
“Because travel is as much an intellectual affair as it is a physical one, we believe that travel writing is most enriching when it engages with the world of ideas.”
I often teach students about creating “found” poetry, although I rarely practice that art myself. But when the literary review Herontree set forth an unusual challenge, I was tempted to try my hand. They asked poets to write a poem based solely on the words and phrases from a 1905 publication entitled “How to Keep Bees” by Anna Botsford Comstock. I’m pleased that the editors chose my work “Fidelity in a Bed of Pinks” for Volume 8. Click the link below to read about the process of “finding a poem”. Within this link is another link to the poem itself.
When had I been here before? At first, I didn’t know. I was three months into Covid isolation and restrictions when I realized that something about this “new” confined lifestyle felt strangely familiar. Here I was, living a repetitive, circumscribed life, far away from structured entertainment, far away from shopping centers, far away from friends and family. And yet, it seemed oddly “déjà vu”.
And then it struck me. I was a pilgrim again. A spiritual seeker on a journey. Only this time I wasn’t wandering along the 1200 kilometer route of the 88 Temples in Shikoku, Japan or crossing France and Spain to arrive in Fisterra. I was taking small daily steps, along with thousands of other human beings, on an unknown trail through a pandemic.
In the last couple of years, I’ve had the good fortune of doing several “holy” pilgrimages: usually traditional routes for Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, or even Unitarians. My quest is not specifically religious, but always spiritual. Walking alone day after day changes the mind and the spirit. Sometimes I’m gone for two months at a stretch. Sometimes I’ll just set out on a purposeful walk of a few days, to pay homage to a special place or people, while I’m working or traveling abroad. The Living Root Bridges in India, for instance, or the dolmens and menhirs of Brittany. This kind of activity necessitates a voluntary isolation, a suspended state. It’s not life or tourism as we usually know it. The pilgrimage experience is not “normal”.
On pilgrimage, I don’t go into crowded supermarkets or noisy restaurants. I buy fruit, dried fish, cheese, whatever the local markets sell. Or I eat quietly with monks, or nuns, or in the corner of a small café. I don’t run errands or plan parties or go to the gas station. I don’t commute anywhere. I don’t attend concerts or theater or go to the cinema. Instead, as I walk, I sing to myself, and write screenplays in my mind. I am far away from family and friends, but I think about them all the time, maybe more intensely than when I am with them in person, and with greater perspective. I ache to hold the grandchildren. I write them poems and letters and sketch their faces from memory. On pilgrimage, I never know what’s around the next corner, but I can feel a certain openness in my heart, a certain acceptance of mystery. I’m far away from home, and vulnerable, but I’m relaxed, grateful, alive. I don’t think about the end of the road. Everything is in slow motion. I’m pretty much in the here and now, noticing more beauty and feeling more awe than I usually do.
And that’s how it’s been for me during the past year of the Covid pandemic.
Am I in an idealized state? Hardly. My newsfeed insures that I am constantly aware of the pain and loss, which hangs heavy over this planet. I understand too well that my grandchildren have missed over a year of school, that one of my sons has lost his livelihood and source of income (he’s a choral conductor and singing is considered a super-spreader). I’ve known, personally, at least five bereaved families who couldn’t hold an in-person funeral for their loved ones. I’ve read about the hundreds of thousands of others who have suffered in the same way. During this time, two of my close friends died from non-Covid causes. Their passing was eerie, unreal, and disturbing, as I sat weeping for them in front of my computer screen.
But I’m not unaware of the blessings of this isolation either.
When you are walking along by yourself, carrying all your possessions on your back, the smallest daily rituals become your entire universe. Packing your pocket knife in the same spot every morning; washing out one of your two pairs of underwear, keeping a journal of the day’s observations, saying words of gratitude. It’s not a big world. It’s a world reduced to the same few gestures performed over and over.
In many ways, my life during Covid consists of that same concentration of small rituals.
Each day, after a morning walk in the neighborhood, I start preparations for a mid-day dinner. I grew up with that European-style eating pattern, but I’d never been able to replicate the habit as an adult. I always had to leave early in the morning to go to work, returning home at night, tired and rushed. But during the Covid confinement, I’ve found it easy to begin preparing dinner first thing in the morning, since I’m teaching from home. My husband and I can smell bread baking or a spicy lentil soup bubbling on the stove while we pursue our respective online work and leisure activities. We enjoy the mid-day meal and seem to clean up with little effort. It’s barely one o’clock and I’m still relaxed, calm, refreshed. The ritual is comforting.
During a pilgrimage, you reduce the width of your field of vision, but you increase its depth. You’re not whizzing by on a bullet train. You’re putting one foot in front of the other. You start noticing how the trunks of bamboo trees make a whooshing sound in the wind, how the steps up to Japanese temples sit at an angle to the foot, how raisins return to the shape of grapes when they’ve been squished in the bottom of your rucksack. Everything seems precious on a pilgrimage. Nothing is taken for granted. Not the bread you’re holding in your hand, not the bed you’re lucky enough to be sleeping in for the night. Especially not the people who help you along the way.
During my Covid isolation, I have felt the preciousness of my house, my yard, my neighborhood, my friends and my family. And I appreciate little aspects of my life, which I am not sure I even thought about before.
I think I even appreciate groceries in a different way. I am not a fan of those “mega” supermarkets, where the milk aisle is located three city blocks from the vegetable aisle, and where atmospheric pop songs accompany your every move. I used to think of grocery shopping as a burden. I’d do it kind of mindlessly and I hated lugging the stuff home. But at the outset of the pandemic, I began to order grocery store items online. Now when my groceries arrive, I’m totally appreciative. I’m grateful to the people who have shopped and packed the items for me. I look forward to delivery day. I also found a service that brings, right to my door, a wide variety of imperfect, misshapen fresh produce, which would otherwise go to waste. There’s even a service which brings me grains, lentils, flaxseed, and such. I spend less money than if I were impulse buying at the health food store and meal planning is a more disciplined process. Plus I get to open the boxes. It’s like receiving a present!
I’ve always loved my little house, but during the Covid isolation, I’ve started looking at my dwelling and its ordinary yard with different eyes. There’s a narrow brook (really a drainage ditch) behind the house. I’ve lived here for four decades, but I’ve never paid much attention to the ditch before. It’s never overflowed, never given me trouble. It’s just there. But during this pandemic time, I’m home all the time. I find myself looking out the window at the brook. I watch it fill and swell and ice over and dry up and turn to mud and fill again. It has become my thermometer. If it’s frozen, I know I’d better wear my hat and gloves on my morning walk. If it’s flowing, I can just go out in a windbreaker.
I’m paying attention to so many little things, just as I do on a pilgrimage. My neighborhood is home to owls. Who knew? Since I’m not rushing through my morning walk in order to jump in the car and go somewhere, I can look up and about and spy on the sleepy owls who perch as still as storefront mannequins in the hemlock trees around the corner.
One aspect of pilgrimage that has always pleased me is the feeling that the world has no borders. Pilgrims come from all over the globe. Even if we are traveling solo, we pass each other and find companions for a few hours or days, often conversing from the heart as we walk. Right off the bat, we have something in common: the pilgrimage experience itself. Furthermore, there are no other distractions. One walks. That’s it. So people become available to each other. No one is busy, no one is tied up, no one is on a treadmill of work or activity.
During this pandemic, I’ve felt as if I am part of a larger world once again. My friends in Europe, Japan, Canada….they are all going through lock downs, losses, and isolation. And just like on a pilgrimage, almost everyone is available in a way that normal life prohibits. I have “seen” more of my friends from abroad during this confinement than I normally do. Yes, it’s on a screen, but it’s frequent and as we’ve adjusted to the medium, we’ve gotten better at communicating our real selves: our concerns, our trivial pleasures, our fears, and our secrets.
There’s another way in which this confinement resembles a pilgrimage. And that is the shadow of death, which hovers over the experience. In medieval times, European Christians on the famous Caminos faced many risks: illness, the Black Plague, dehydration, bandits, animal attacks, inclement weather in the mountain passes and other challenges. Death was never far away. Those pilgrims who continued on to Fisterra in Spain, a place believed by the Romans to be the “end of the earth” were thought to be coming close to the “other world” or the land of the dead.
In the same way, Japanese Buddhist pilgrims must also walk with acute awareness of their own mortality. Some claim that the traditional white vest and pants worn by those following the 88 Temple Walk represent burial clothes, while the wooden staff they carry is a grave marker, and their large, conical hat is a coffin.
During this pandemic time, we, too, are pilgrims on a long journey, and death walks alongside us, either directly or indirectly. Almost three million people, worldwide, have died as I write this. Over 500,000 Americans alone. Just about the same number as perished in the Civil War. The very fact that our minds can’t really grasp these numbers doesn’t change the fact that loss sits, like an invisible stone, on our psyches.
But one of the purposes of pilgrimage is to step out of the daily frenzy, to reflect on the big questions. The enforced isolation of the Covid pandemic has given me another opportunity to slow down and experience both bounty and suffering, challenge and gift.
I feel grateful to have been able to travel this far.
My poem Villanelle: 2020, originally published in Grand Little Things has been reprinted in Elayne Clift’s collection entitled Poetry from the Pandemic, published by University Professors’ Press. Elayne anticipates readings in New England and California during the upcoming months. I hope to participate!
Critical Read is a non-profit publisher dedicated to making art more inclusive and discoverable. In their feature, Art is Essential, they asked writers to describe an aspect of art that they missed during the height of the pandemic. In a short piece entitled “The Wings of a Dove” I wrote about the Elm City Girls Choir.
If you missed choral concerts, this piece might resonate with you too.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Editor Matt Potter at PureSlush, an Australian publisher intent on celebrating the whole human lifespan in several volumes. Each of the twelve planned volumes will feature stories from a specific phase of life.
My piece entitled Fire Extinguisher appears in Volume 2. It’s a fictional account of a Maine farm boy and his restricted upbringing.
Here’s the beginning of Fire Extinguisher:
Lying in bed, Relland recited New Testament verses over and over. Passages about sin and burning. At the age of fifteen, he felt scorched, ready to ignite, as if his entire body were a page of the Bangor Daily News held too close to the woodstove.
“No relations before marriage,” repeated Pastor Martin, both from the pulpit, and every week during Youth Group meetings. “Avoid even kissing until you are engaged.”
Relland was constantly being reminded of the sins of the flesh. Either the sins themselves, or just the nature of flesh. All the animals on the family farm seemed to spend their time rooting and licking and humping and thumping. Cows were inseminated. Sows and boars made piglets. Dogs fused together in the oddest places: next to the woodpile or behind the glider on the porch. The wettest, pinkest, fleshiest parts of all the beasts were on constant display, teasing the growing boy with examples of raw, sensual energy.
Relland felt weighed down by a heat that began in his throat and singed his groin like a red-hot poker.
(I hope you’re curious about what happens to poor, frustrated Relland….
The rights to the story have reverted to me, but the publisher has asked that writers wait a “courteous three months” from publication before re-printing. PureSlush folks have been a pleasure to work with careful editors and prompt communication. The least I can do is honor their request.
I’ve never liked walls or borders. Much of my work as a teacher, a “preacher”, and a writer focuses on ways to bring together people from different cultures, languages, and points of view.
I’m delighted that Résonance, a curated Franco-American literary journal from the University of Maine’s Digital Commons, published my poem Curling, Before. The theme of Volume 3 was Borderlands: North and South.
A special thanks to Judith Cassidy, a Canadian friend and enthusiastic curling coach. She is an inspiration.
Back then, folks living on each side of the border used to play the game together. One sheet of ice between them, a couple of brooms, eight spinning granite stones.
All along Lake Mephrémagog, neighbors would turn up on a Saturday night, coming from one town or another.
With their grippers and their sliders, their Anglo-Saxon curses and their tabernaques.
Side by side, they’d curl away the winter, bleak and long.
Inside the clubhouse, les éclats, les blagues, the gentle ribbings, the rise of steam from a thermos of shared coffee. Under the soft yellow lights, one couldn’t tell a maple leaf from a star, the fleur de lys from a stripe.
Back then, there were no checkpoints. Not really. A sleepy douanier, perhaps. A wave of the hand as Vermonters freely crossed the pines. A nod of the head as Quebeckers sauntered onto Main Street. Neighbors, emmitouflé or buttoned-up, just walked across the bridge to cheer each other on.
Maybe they still curl on the Quebec side, or maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s cold and quiet there, dark, like it is here.
Three loves have come together once again: hiking, writing, and travel.
My non-fiction vignette entitled Roncevaux-Roncevalles appears in the anthology “Write to Move” edited by Sharon Chisvin, under the auspices of the Arts Council of Winnepeg, Canada and printed by Hignell Book.
The Covid pandemic is a strange time to publish an anthology of writing celebrating the freedom of movement, but current restrictions make the subject even more poignant. Obviously, the project was conceived long before the current global crisis.
You can purchase a copy of “Write to Move” to see all these inspiring stories. Read my piece below:
The snow came as a surprise. It was the first of May, and I was walking, alone, through the Pyrenees from France to Spain. I reached into my backpack and grabbed some thick Thorlo socks to use as gloves. They were thoroughly wet within half an hour as the snow fell faster and faster. The ground became soft and slippery, but I noticed a few local goats continued to leap confidently from rock to icy rock. Who owned those goats? Did they have a goatherd? Were they wild? I didn’t know.
There was a lot I didn’t know. For one thing, I thought it would be warmer at this time of year. Just before arriving in Saint Jean Pied de Port, the last big settlement before the border, I was already feeling the cold. I found my way to a second-hand shop run by volunteers from the Eglise de l’Assomption. For two Euros I bought a heavy, navy blue wool sweater which I could imagine a goatherd having the sense to wear while tending his goats through spring snowstorms. This one had a few moth holes, but was still serviceable.
The grey-haired woman who sold me the goatherd’s sweater was a walker herself. She’d done the Camino de Santiago, the Camino del Norte, and the Via de la Plata trail too. She told me that the famous pass at Roncevaux might be closed.
“Passez la nuit à Orisson,” she cautioned. “There’s a little auberge there.”
I welcomed her advice. Besides, I figured that by the time I reached Orisson, I would be more than ready for some hot soup, a boule of warm bread, and a tidy bunk with feather quilts.
There’s something about starting a long walk, even one where you’re not perfectly well-outfitted. I always feel powerful. Alive. My body in sync with my soul. As if every step were bringing me closer to an understanding of the planet, of its history, of my own place in it.
I already knew a little bit about this mystical shoulder of Europe, the point where the Iberian peninsula hangs off the rest of the continent. As a schoolgirl, I read about the Battle of Roncevaux where Basques ambushed Charlemagne’s army after the Franks attacked Pamplona. In French class, I had suffered through readings of La Chanson de Roland, but I always struggled to keep straight who won or lost, what was fact and what was fiction. I knew, too, that there was another Battle of Roncevalles during the Napoleonic era, but I can’t say as battles have ever really interested me.
As I walked, I kept thinking about how much bloodshed has unfortunately taken place as people have fought over territory, or because of differences of god or tongue, custom or culture. I much prefer to think of the world as borderless, a place where everyone is free to live, work, and wander.
When I arrived at Orisson, my hair a tangle of wet knots, my quick-dry hiking pants soaked through, the innkeepers took me under their wing. Perhaps they could tell that I was a bit of a dreamer. No longer young. Fueled by enthusiasm. Full of sweet memories of a youth spent hiking, climbing trees, and idly looking at clouds.
“Will the path be like this the whole way?” I asked.
“You mean with the snow? Mais non, it will be clear. You’ll see,” they said.
In the middle of the night I woke up to pee, to ponder, and to look out the window. The snow had stopped and thousands of stars were piercing the dark sky.
By morning, the innkeepers said that the pass was open.
“Just follow the arrows and you’ll get to Ronceveau,” they said. “But by then, they’ll call it Roncevalles, You’ll be in Spain.”
After a fat bowl of warm milk, some crusty bread with jam, and a slice of hard cheese, I set out again, my boots crunching in the sun-spackled snow.
But I kept wondering….how would I know that I’d made it across to Spain? And would it matter?
I climbed and climbed, first hugged by the trees, then by boulders. I kept looking for markers. Surely there’s a stone monument acknowledging the border. Perhaps a memorial to slain Moors, or Basques or Franks.
I wasn’t exactly sure where I was, but I felt buoyed simply by the walk itself. The magical effect of “shinrin yoku” or what the Japanese call forest bathing was giving me a natural high. At times I passed other hikers or pilgrims and I exchanged greetings. I was delighted to be in motion, my walking stick lightly touching the earth with each step.
After a half an hour or so, I came upon a dazed young man leaning against a rock. His eyes looked hollow and he asked me for water. I noticed that his lips were so parched that little bits of skin flaked off when he spoke. He didn’t know a word of French or Spanish, but his English was perfect, even though he was a bit disoriented and clearly thirsty.
I poured some of my canteen water into this stranger’s open mouth and handed him a squished pear and a plastic baggie filled with dried apricots. I sat with him for a short time while he perked up. We began to chat. He was Dutch, which explained his mastery of English. He’d been hiking for a few days, got a bit lost, and had used up his water and food the night before.
“Do you think we’re in France or Spain?” he asked.
“We must still be in France,” I said, “Because we’re not yet at the pass.”
“I’ll follow you”, he said, as if I knew where I was going. As if anyone could tell where one country starts and another one ends.
He continued behind me, half my age, but half my speed. Now and then I looked back and saw him carefully putting one foot in front of the other on the rocky path.
At last I reach what had to be the highest point, no doubt the natural border. There was a little chapel and signs in Basque and Spanish. From there, I began a long descent, waiting first for the hapless Dutch boy to appear from behind.
In the early afternoon, in Roncevalles, I stopped at a monastery albergue where plump monks, speaking softly with Castilian lisps, showed me to my room.
“Dinner will be served late,señora” they said, “as in the Spanish manner.”
With time on my hands, I decided to go exploring. Although I had been walking all morning, I couldn’t resist a saunter around the tiny town, thinking about battles and borders, stones and blood, all the lines we constantly draw between ourselves and our neighbors.
Later, at dinner, across the wide wooden tables of the monastery refectory, I met up with my young Dutch companion. He had recuperated fully from his bout of dehydration and he ate a hearty dinner, as did I.
For dessert, we stuffed ourselves with creamy Spanish flan, as thick and soft as yesterday’s snow.
I appreciate that the goal of A Moment of Your Time is to create a sense of community when so much of the world is feeling isolated and cut-off because of the ravages of COVID19. Take a minute to be part of this endeavor!