Monday, November 9, 2009

Always Coming Home: Going in Circles

I'll borrow the title of Ursula Le Guin's luminous novel to start this posting. She writes across the genres of science fiction and fantasy, always to create heterocosms, literally "other worlds." In her books, she creates "other worlds" -- so that we can more sharply see our own. Reading her book "Always Coming Home," I was transported into a landscape suffused with the light and season of northern California, all projected into a very different time. Closing the book, I felt dumped back into my familiar. Home again -- but with a twist.

That's pilgrimage: you come home again. But with a twist. The point wasn't to get to Santiago; the point was to come home again -- with a twist.

In our post-pilgrimage postings, Lisa and I have been trying to figure out exactly what's altered. It seems like pilgrimage goes in a straight line: ours went from Pamplona to Santiago. But in fact, the real journey was from California to the Camino -- and back again. Something's different: we're trying to find its pulse.

Over the weekend, I joined a group of seasoned and potential pilgrims at a gathering of the American Friends of the Camino ( As I looked around the room, I had a sense of what's changed. Turning to the other Marty in the group, I said: "I came back speaking a language no one else understood. I could barely communicate. You all speak that language." Without identifying the difference, my comment expressed it.

In his presentation to the group in the afternoon, Phil Cousineau observed that "every great journey is a circle," and he cited Kierkegaard: "Life is lived forward, but understood backward." I flashed on the image of all those cairns, monuments of stones that pilgrims had picked up in the morning and set down somewhere later in the day. These displaced stones swarmed certain places along the way, monuments to the circle of pilgrimage. Spiritually and physically, the trek goes forward only by journeying back to pick up pieces of the past, turn them over, travel with them for a time -- and lay them down.

During the course of the long days of walking, we kept running into pieces of the past. We told lots of stories from our own pasts; we met people from all over the world. With many of them, we found some strange common connection: a city we'd loved, a rock band we'd followed, a person we knew. Each connection was charged with memory: uncanny -- and not a coincidence. Stones from the past, picked up again, and set down in a new configuration.

Indeed, during Kathy Gower's evocative slide show of her journey along the Camino d'Arles a few months before, she showed a picture of a fellow pilgrim she'd met along the way. The man and his dog rested by a stream. I looked more carefully: it was Richard and Alcabar, the American from Chicago we'd met as a hospitaler in Las Herrerias and then ran into as a pilgrim outside of Santiago. I burst out with his name, and Kathy grinned: "I'm glad you ran into Richard."

All I could say was: "I am too."

Le Guin put it more poetically: we're always coming home.

And thanks to Kathy Gower for the photo of Richard and Alcabar!

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