Friday, June 25, 2010

Unburdening: Backpacks -- and Houses

At various points along the Camino this past September, Lisa and I would look at each other and say: "It's time to unburden." We'd slither out of our backpacks, stretch our spines, and sit down. We'd unlace boots, shed socks, and let the breezes blow through our blisters.

Pilgrimage is a process of unburdening. It begins before you even leave home: with packing. I remember the initial unburdening. On the bedroom floor, I laid out everything I thought I'd need. I regarded each item: How much do I need you? Enough to carry you across the top of Spain? It was an unburdening.

Then I loaded everything up into the backpack and shouldered it: Could I haul this for a day's hike? And for the next day? And the next? Another unburdening.

Even along the trail, I left tiny altars of suddenly superfluous stuff. What had seemed so essential back home on the bedroom floor, had now become dead weight. I shed them like a snake molts dead skin.

By the end of the pilgrimage, I knew what to carry -- and what not. I didn't need to carry food: there were cafes and tiendas along the way. I didn't need to carry water: there were fountains in abundance. By the end of the journey -- and only by the end, we knew exactly what we needed.

I wish it were as easy to unburden a house as a backpack. I'm selling mine and moving from California to Minnesota. I've been unburdening my house.

The process of moving requires a discernment similar to packing a backpack. For weeks I've been lining up things and asking similar questions: How much do I need you? Enough to carry you across the country? Then follows an unburdening.

A graphic Lisa used in an earlier post haunts me: someone carries a house on her back -- instead of a backpack. I know I can't take it all with me. And I don't want to. If I take all the baggage from the old lives, there won't be any room for a new one. So I've been unburdening: furniture and photos, memorabilia and that most precious possession to a writer, books! It's hard; it's exhausting; it's evokes a spectrum of emotion. And it's the necessary askesis of change.

I know that by the end of the trip -- and only then -- will I know what I need. I only have to set out with what it takes to get me going.

The photo above is probably a good visual mantra for the journey. One needs water to survive, but often you don't have to carry it. There are fountains in abundance.

And look how lightly I carry that pack.

Taking Notes -- and Taking Note: The Difference

One day I counted up all the years I spent in school. I started with nursery school and kindergarten, ended with college and grad school, and added them all up. Total? Let's just say it's a lot: I couldn't count it on all my fingers and toes. I had to borrow someone else's.

Over that obscene number of years, I took a lot of notes. I outlined arguments of all the major texts on my comprehensive exams. I underlined and highlighted so much, that the original text became hard to decipher. Eventually, I bought second copies of some books, because I found the marginalia in my first copy either distracting -- or just plain wrong. Re-reading my notes decades later, I realize that they say more about me and my state of mind at the time -- than the text itself.

This does not make me proud. I have devoted so much time and energy taking notes, that I failed to simply take note.

Taking note is simply letting something speak to you, in its own voice and on its own terms. Taking note is simply paying attention. In my feverish effort to take notes, I failed to attend to what was right in front of me.

Of course, the visual analogue to taking notes is taking photos. As with all forms of travel, on pilgrimage you see lots of people taking photos -- and lots of them. Yes, it's an excuse to rest up and catch one's breath. But, I fear that photo-obsessed tourists and pilgrims see the entire journey through the lens of a camera -- if they are as obsessed about taking photos as I was about taking notes.

In which case, the camera rules, disciplining the landscape to its eye. Terrain ceases to transform; it becomes the object of the voracious photographic lens. A landscape poses -- and just for you, often with one of your best friends littering the view with a goofy smile. With a camera's lens, the photographer can crop and edit, enlarge or diminish, zoom in or out. A photographer composes a scene, rather than letting what's actually there take her breath away.

I'm not a fan of heavily documented trips.

And yet, I lugged a camera along both pilgrimages, trying to make myself use it for taking note, not taking notes. When I was not successful, viewing the image today merely baffles. When I was successful, though, the image triggers memories of a feeling, a smell, a story, a stretch of the road.

That's using image to take note, rather than using image to take notes.

Thanks to John Rosenberg, who found that bright line. When he read the post entitled "I'd rather be fishing....!" he sent me the image above of a French fisherman we met along the trail that followed the Aspe River. Our band of pilgrims included three avid fishermen -- John among them. When this man realized there was a first language of fishing among our ragged band, he produced his catch.

A brown trout, a luminous moment, and a great memory.

Really, wouldn't we all rather be taking note -- than taking notes.

Patricia Hampl captures the grace of attention, and even if she uses the plural form, "notes," she's talking about "taking note." I excerpt from her essay "Memory and Imagination" in THE DOLPHIN READER (1985):

"Our most ancient metaphor says life is a journey. Memoir is travel writing, then, notes taken along the way, telling how things looked and what thoughts occurred. But I cannot think of the memoirist as a tourist. This is the traveler who goes on foot, living the journey, taking on mountains, enduring deserts, marveling at the lush green places. Moving through it all faithfully, not so much a survivor with a harrowing tale to tell as a pilgrim, seeking, wondering."

Friday, June 4, 2010

The difference between a circle and a line: Returning to Pamplona

This seems the question of a mathematician, not a pilgrim. But I find myself again in Pamplona, this time not at the beginning of a pilgrimage, but at its end. When Lisa and I did the Camino in September, Pamplona was our starting point, the easternmost part of our journey. From here we hiked west. This time Pamplona is our ending point, the westernmost part of this journey. From here we fly home.

I spent the afternoon circling the city, one of the best fortifications in the whole of medieval Europe. But this time, I know what the city holds, and I can navigate by the spires of the three churches that mark the medieval neighborhoods of the Franks, the Basques, and the Navarrans.

When I visited the churches in September, I asked the local saints, Frank, Basque, and Navarran to bless our journey. We were just setting out, and I had no idea what was ahead of us, how we´d find our way, or how we´d hold up.

This time I can only offer thanksgiving. It has been a wonderful trip.

In September, I walked outside of town to find the pilgrim´s trail through the city. We wanted to be sure the pilgrim route did not coincide with the route for the running of the bulls! But I also wanted to acclimate myself to noticing the signs marking the pilgrim route: yellow arrows and scallop shells. It would take a few days to get used to looking.

This time I walked the same route, helping a couple of pilgrims find their way into the town. Jason from Brooklyn was going to walk as far as he could in three weeks; Ulrich from Sweden was in for the long haul. They were decades apart in age, but bonded for the journey -- and by the journey.

Finally, in Pamplona I looked to the west for what lay ahead of us. Our window on the third floor looked west. During the night, when jet lag woke me, I stood at the window, trying to read the western sky. I had no idea what was behind Pamplona, what the road was like that brought people here.

This time I know what´s behind Pamplona. We walked into the Pyrenees, up and down rivers that drain the mountain snows. I can situate this city into the landscape -- and the pilgrim route.

Most in the party have done parts of the Camino before, ending each of their treks in Santiago. It´s odd not having a destination like Santiago before us. We´re walking a pilgrimage route, but we won´t reach the relics. And for goal-oriented folks like those in this group, that´s a bit like training for the 1500 m. freestyle, entering the race, swimming the first 1000 m. as hard and as fast as you can -- and then getting out of the pool.

But then finishing the race isn´t why we did this, not now. And not even in September. Each time, we walked for what walking would teach us.

Walking around Pamplona, I´ve been considering what walking taught me. Taking one step at a time adds up over time -- but you´ve got to take the first step. I´ve learned to look, in the sense of attending to things, people, my surroundings. And I´ve learned to embrace that spirit of what-the-hellness, that has allowed me to roll with whatever the day brings. Not insignificant lessons.

So that´s what Í´m thanking all the local saints, Frank, Basque, and Navarran, as I revisit these old Romanesque churches in Pamplona. It feels like completing a circle I hadn´t even known existed.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"I´d rather be fishing...!"

I´ve fallen in with a group of fisherman masquerading as pilgrims. We walked into the mountains along the Aspe River. We walked out of them along the Aragon River. Whenever the route drops down along the river, we run into the local fishermen. And the pilgrims I´ve been traveling with suddenly turn into fishermen. Whatever language barriers exist evaporate. The art of fishing is a common tongue.

One local fisherman we encountered along the Aspe must have been sent there by the French Bureau of Tourism. With his straw fishing basket, beret, and waders, he looked ready for a postcard. We obliged -- and when we asked his permission, he pulled a small brown trout out of his bag. It wriggled into the picture as well.

Traveling fishing rivers with fishing men has been an unexpected pleasure of this trip. I´m learning to read rivers.

They are as eloquent as a good novel.

Fishermen look for transitions, places where there´s change. Sometimes rapids bleed into quieter pools; sometimes a lazy stretch of water suddenly cascades. These pilgrims turned fishermen delight in imagining where they might cast and what they might pull out. Transitions bode good fishing.

Fishermen also look for waterfalls, and there have been plenty of them. Rapids and waterfalls aerate the river, filling it with oxygen. They are also pretty good at oxygenating pilgrims, and every time we pass a waterfall, we hang out for a while just breathing in all those positive ions. Oxygen and ions are signs of a healthy river.

Finally, fishermen look for "structure," underwater architecture where fish can simply hang out. A stretch of river with a lot of structure means fish have good hiding places, where they can sequester themselves and wait for a bite to eat. Structure signals a fine place for casting.

Transition, aeration, structure: if you´re a fisherman, it´s a trifecta. These aren´t bad metaphors for pilgrimage either. Quite literally, pilgrims walk from one place to another. Though not exactly fishing for something, they have a destination in mind, whether Santiago or Mecca or Jerusalem. Some pilgrims are actually "fishing" for insight, in hopes that physical discipline will spark spiritual insight. Transition is key to pilgrimage.

So is aeration. Walking in the mountain air and taking in all the positive ions of waterfalls and rivers has literally cleared my head. Gone the fraught atmosphere of semester´s end, the haze of moving, the press of decisions. I´m full of good air and great energy.

Then there´s the structure, particularly the underground structure. Our feet register the road, whether mud or the springy forest of fallen leaves, or mountain scree. Over the weeks I simply trust my feet to find the way, and when I try to help them, I falter. Fellow pilgrim and ace fisherman Jon Rosenberg caught me hesitating over some slippery rocks in a shallow stream: "Don´t overthink this one, Mart. Just follow your feet." He was right.

There´s a deeper underground structure to pilgrimage as well. The first days are full of new impressions, gear adjustments, packing and repacking to find the right arrangement of stuff. After that, you can go on forever, and the rhythm of walking molds you.

Transition, aeration, and deep structure: not bad metaphors for life either.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Shifting Gears: From Pilgrim to Tourist....

We followed the River Aragon all day to the medieval city of Jaca. In France, the Pyrenees were in front of us, beckoning. Now in Spain, they are behind us, bidding farewell.

I hate to say goodbye.

And I have to admit, crossing them was the part of the trip that most excited and terrified me. Mountains are a fierce landscape, gracious and unforgiving depending on the weather. We were lucky to cross these mountains in a fine drizzle rather than driving rain or dazzling sun.

As we push west to Pamplona, though, the mountains recede. I can barely see the snow-capped peaks over the walls of Jaca.

We have only another day of walking, from Jaca to Santa Cruz de la Seros, where we´ll spend two nights, making a day trip to the monastery of San Juan de la Pena. We´ll do that without the packs that have become like another appendage.

As much as I groaned picking up my pack every morning, I will hate to say goodbye to that too. Everything I needed was in that pack. I´ll feel naked without it.

Not surprisingly, I´m already fantasizing about the sundress I´ll buy to cover the nakedness.

I can shift from pilgrim to tourist so fast it scares me. The clothing fantasy that kept me going for the last days into Santiago this past September were a pair of Spanish jeans. I wanted something besides my trekking pants to wear.

This time I lust after a sundress -- and a pair of high-top sneakers. I must want to shed both the pants and the boots. I can´t vouch for the combination, but the fantasy is there.

So what´s the difference between pilgrim and tourist? I think it´s interesting that I long to "buy" something. Consumption marks tourism. You see it in the way people take pictures with cameras and iPhones, "bagging" another experience for their scrapbooks. Pilgrims, in contrast, are too busy walking.

You see it in the difference between tourist hotels and pilgrim hostels. Hotels are full of "stuff" to do and places to eat, each flyer vying with another to catch the eye. Pilgrim hostels are empty, tables bare and rooms waiting. The blank space work like empty canvasses, inviting impressions to emerge. Like animals along the trail, if long enough to become part of the landscape.

I see it in the difference between my tourist and pilgrim habits of mind. Believe me: I am a full-bore, world-class tourist, and I can "graze" a city like no one else, figuring out in record time what needs to be seen, when, and which route gets there most scenically. But as a pilgrim, I simply reach a city -- and sit. I can sit for hours watching.

It´s as if my pilgrim feet have taught my inner tourist to slow down. After all, the speed of consumption is far faster than the speed of simply looking.

Mary Oliver put it well:

"I look. Morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around,
As though with your arms open.

And thinking
Maybe something will come, some
shining coil of wind
Or a few leaves from any old tree
They are all in this too.

And now I will tell you the truth:
Everything in the world comes.

At least closer.

And cordially." ("Where does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?")

I hate to leave this kind of looking behind.