Thursday, August 2, 2012

Being a Pilgrim by Staying at Home: The Lightness of Being

Being a pilgrim by staying at home? Hiking left me with that impulse. In many and various ways, my feet told me: enough. My heart told me: continue the pilgrimage in everyday life. I returned with a new lightness of both being and backpack.

For three weeks I carried everything I needed on my back. My hiking buddy and I did a major edit before we even got on the plane. One hot morning in Minneapolis, we hiked seven miles along the Mississippi. The air was thick with moisture; we generated a lot more ourselves. We knew every ounce of extra weight would register on the soles of our feet. I went home and interrogated each shirt: "Do I care for you enough to haul you around for three weeks?" At the end of that conversation, I put lots of clothes back in drawers. Everything else, I packed in zip-lock bags, sat on until the air squeezed out, zipped them shut, and loaded them into my pack. I wasn't even carrying extra air.

Along the way, I downsized still further. I prevailed upon my sister-in-law to take home a dress I'd worn to dinners in Cinque Terre, before the hiking began. I picked it up a few weeks later on a swing through the Bay Area. After we started walking, I ditched more stuff that suddenly seemed extraneous. I discarded socks, extra moleskin, the day's readings, pages of the novel I'd finished, sections of the Italian grammar I'd memorized. I fashioned them into a shrine, took a mental snapshot -- and moved on. Without looking back.

And on a different level, I did the same with other burdens: grudges, worries, even a few relationships. I trimmed my gear down to what I wanted to carry.

By the end of the trip, I was traveling with the clothes I hiked in, a change of underwear -- and the one beautiful dress The Girls all agreed we had to wear every night for dinner.

We contracted to carry that one beautiful dress, no matter what.

We promised to praise each other's one beautiful dress at dinner, no matter how many times we'd seen it before.

We vowed to wear that one beautiful dress with the attitude the Italians call "bella figura." Which translates roughly: "I'm here -- and you're lucky."

After all, we were in Italy. Certain canons of fashion apply.

Now, at home, I unpacked everything I brought back with me. Clothes that I'd hand-washed for three weeks went into the washing machine -- for several cycles. The dog-eared itinerary sits on my desk, reminding me of the towns we walked through. Sometimes I say their names aloud, just to taste them. That one beautiful dress went to the dry cleaner's. And I lost the pilgrim credentials that I had stamped in the sacristy at St. Peter's -- or perhaps, they kept on hiking without us.

But I notice the lightness of spirit still, even and maybe especially sitting at my desk at home writing. I've lost weight, physically but also spiritually. That's the aftermath of pilgrimage.

In "Ash Wednesday," T.S. Eliot refers to another pilgrimage one makes by staying in one place, the journey through Lent. It involves similar unburdening.

"Teach us to care and not to care.
Teach us to sit still."

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