Thursday, September 30, 2010
When I set off on the Great Road Trip East, I started in Oakland, California and pointed the car in the direction of Minneapolis. I figured if I covered two states, one set of mountain ranges, and one time zone each day, I'd make the trip in three days.
That is, if I didn't get lost.
I downloaded directions, which gave me point-to-point instructions, right down to which way to turn out of my driveway. Basically, my directions were simple and idiot-proof: Take interstate 80 east and turn left at Des Moines. That was good for about 1800 miles.
I also brought along maps, because maps pointed out small towns, larger towns, and the spaces in between. Maps told me when I crossed the Rockies and where the Wasatch Range lay. Maps pointed out the North Platte River, which so many pioneers followed west -- and I now followed east. Most helpful, at least on the Great Road Trip, maps revealed rest stops, gas stations, and the Golden Arches of McDonald's, where I could caffeinate for the road ahead. This was good information to have.
I also brought along a compass, just in case. The compass lived on the dashboard, and it always pointed to "true north." For some reason, that gave me great comfort. One foggy morning in Nebraska, I couldn't tell whether the sun was rising or where. I pulled into a rest stop to consult the compass, just to make sure I was still going east. When directions fail, when maps lose their bearing, a compass can orient you in deep fog. That deep fog can be physical or spiritual; it can be personal or institutional. Compasses are kind of good to have around.
This is kind of a trinity of travel paraphernalia: each one does something the others do not.
Directions are linear, moving from point-to-point. They are enormously helpful, if you know precisely where you're coming from --and precisely where you're headed. Directions are sequential, like cookbooks, giving a step-by-step plan of action. First, peel; then, puree -- not the other way around! Finally, directions are bossy: they tell you what to do. And after all the decisions that went into packing up my old place and setting up my new one, my executive capacity had snapped like a worn-out rubber band. I needed someone else directing traffic.
Maps are planar and spatial, surveying a particular terrain. They display relationships; they tell you what's alongside. Here is this range of mountain; there is that river; twenty miles ahead you'll find a rest stop. Finally, maps are simply descriptive. They display the quadrants of the known world, laying them out for you to figure it all out. While directions say: "Do this!" a map, in contrast, says: "Here it is."
A compass offers basic orientation. Nothing more -- and certainly nothing less. A compass provides the most comprehensive -- but least specific! -- kind of guidance. They are useful when the destination is not known. Or not clear. Or has not yet been manifest.
Now I've arrived: I'm here. And I did not get lost.
I've thrown away my directions, because I'll never be making the journey from that place to this one ever again. I've put away my maps, because I'm not on the road.
The compass, however, I keep in my pocket, for it provides sturdy and unflinching direction for days whose destination is unknown or unclear or not yet manifest. If only the endpoint of each day would arrive in a little envelope outside my door like the morning paper.... But to navigate the days off road, a compass gives the best guidance.
Off-road travel is really different from being on a great road trip. I find myself listening for direction. Sometimes that comes from friends and trusted confidants, both in what they say and what they leave unsaid. At other times, that compass comes from some internal gyroscope that spins away, pointing me in both right and wrong directions.
Mostly, I just try to pay attention, hoping Isaiah got it right:
"And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction,
yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore,
but your eyes shall see your Teacher,
And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying:
'This is the way, walk in it,'
when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left."
This is the journey of ordinary time.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Pilgrimage is a practice tailor-made for seekers. Even Augustine knew this, for Augustine is the quintessential, pre-modern seeker. His autobiography, "The Confessions," is one of the first memoirs, and he chronicles how he looked for love in all the wrong places: philosophy, Gnosticism, music, women. Dissatisfaction mounted -- until Love found him.
But his lost-and-found story made its dent on his soul, and Augustine projected it outward, calling people pilgrims, "peregrini." In this, he only echoes the sentiments of the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, who tells the earliest Christians they are destined to be "strangers and pilgrims on the earth" (11:13).
The book "Eat Pray Love" gets catalogued as a "memoir," but it's really the travel diary of a seeker. Fresh out of a bad marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert sets out for a destination she cannot quite identify, knowing only the places she will pass through along the way: Italy, India, and Bali. She learns to eat in Italy, pray in India, and love in Bali, things she did not actually set out to accomplish, but finds in retrospect.
Indeed, she owes her plot line to Augustine: looking for love in all the wrong places -- only to be found by love in the end. It's not capital "L" Love, but it'll at least get her through another couple of memoirs, one of which is already out "Committed."
Gilbert's is a decidedly post-modern pilgrimage: no capital letters at all, no meta-narratives. Like most things post-modern, it struck me as pretty self-absorbed, even a bit precious. After all, who has the resources -- time and money! -- to travel for a year after a loss like hers. Most of us simply have to hunker down and pay the bills.
Still, as we kept reminding ourselves, Lisa and I could not have trekked across the top of Spain without the generous support of a research grant. Take all of our whining about blisters with a grain of salt. We earned them in achingly beautiful terrain; we eased the pain with liberal doses of Ibuprofen and Rioja.
This made me look more sympathetically at Gilbert's plight. And I was intrigued to find an earlier collection of her short stories entitled "Pilgrims." How would this post-modern seeker develop her theme?
The stories handle people who could hardly be called privileged, and their author treats them with respect, even awe. A scrappy Hungarian immigrant worries that his daughter is too clumsy to achieve any acclaim being the magician she longs to be. Yet, as the story closes, she has literally produced a rabbit out of thin air, redeeming her father's longing and her own aspirations. In "Alice from the East," a widowed rancher offers to help a pair of teenagers whose car has broken down on the prairie. The terrain breathes solitude, and one of the teenagers recognizes her own loneliness in the rancher's -- and treats him as kin. A simple kindness in "The Many Things That Denny Brown Did Not Know (Age Fifteen)" runs like water in a desert -- and the desert blossoms. Such epiphanies abound in Gilbert's stories, as an ordinary gesture sparks a shock of grace. Hard-scrabble as these characters are, they have not forgotten compassion. Neither has Gilbert.
In a very real sense, pilgrims, seekers, Gilbert's characters, possibly Gilbert herself are all lost souls. Certainly pilgrims get lost regularly, trying to find the right path. But they're really lost when they realize: "it's not about getting there, stupid!" It's about the path itself -- and, more importantly, the people on it. Then, pilgrims understand they are on a different journey. To find this new path, they have to pay a different kind of attention.
Compassion is the kind of attention pilgrims need to pay, if they are to find their way forward on a journey that is suddenly not about "getting there." Compassion for themselves, compassion for their fellow-travelers. I think Gilbert gets that. Her stories demonstrate her compassion for these pilgrims and lost souls, her fellow-travelers. Her memoir records her own efforts to find a way to treat herself with compassion.
For pilgrims, seekers, and other lost souls, compassion acts as a compass.
Friday, September 3, 2010
At the moment, I'm waiting for John the Painter to come finish painting. All the furniture has been huddled in the middle of each room, like some post-modern football game. I walk in and excuse myself for interrupting play.
I'm waiting for the semester to begin. There was orientation for new faculty this week, vastly disorienting because I'm decades older than the other new professors. But they didn't treat me like a mom -- and I didn't treat them like children. I can already tell I'm lucky to have such creative and energetic colleagues.
I'm waiting to finish writing an Advent commentary, which has been the work of the last few weeks. Advent is a season of waiting. As I reach for the right words, I realize how appropriate the posture is to the liturgical season. Which hasn't made the waiting any less frustrating, but given it slightly more gravitas.
In contrast, I see that the earlier weeks since my arrival in mid-July have been a rush of activity. People comment on how much I've gotten done -- and it's true. But high productivity is like a drug to me: it's not called "workaholism" for nothing! James Joyce put the addiction more elegantly in "Dubliners:" "Rapid motion through space elates one." I've been elated, giddy almost, with all this rapid motion, all this activity, all these people, all these meetings.
And now that so much has been accomplished, there's nothing left to do but wait for things to begin. All the trappings for it -- paint and permits, bank accounts and dry cleaners, furniture and pictures -- have been graciously settled. There's nothing left to do but live into it all. Real spaces in real time.
I remember that at the beginning of our trek to Santiago de Compostela, Lisa and I were appropriately elated. We set out strong and vigorous, striding up hills and sluicing down scree. We kept that up for a couple of days. Then The Blisters arrived. We tended them every morning; we stopped earlier in the afternoon to simply sit and let the air blow through our toes. We waited for our feet to heal -- at least enough for the next day's walk. Blisters were real -- and our pace slowed to reflect that.
I'm happy not to have The Blisters to deal with this time, but something analogous is happening. I'm slowing down to the speed of Real: real life, real time, real spaces. Elation is finally pretty evanescent: it comes and goes. Beneath it, though, is a steady pulse of joy.
The painter has come -- I'm off.