The beautiful Still Point Arts Quarterly published my essay “A Long, Slow Road” in its summer issue, #42. You can read it here:
A Long, Slow Road
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.