Quest, pilgrimage and sabbath, Part I

Me, Circa 1967

For months I went back and forth about my plan for September. Walking one of the routes of “Camino de Santiago,” the web of pilgrimage paths that lead to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, has been a dream of mine for a good 25 years. I was going to take this September to walk the Coastal Portuguese Way; my most wonderful friend M was going to walk with me. I even renamed this blog of mine in honor of that journey. Then, the Omicron wave hit. War broke out in Ukraine. My Dutch brother said, “this is not the time to travel in Europe.” The dissonance between what a pilgrimage is supposed to be, and my own anxiety was too great; in May I cancelled my trip to Portugal and Spain.

For weeks after, I sat with the disappointment. Small alternative plans were made that fell apart. Over and over, I asked myself, “why was this important, what was this all about?” Gradually, I realized this is part of a far larger ‘life project.’ In a sense, it’s a quest, about looking for something specific. A quest I’ve been on for most of my life, to find peace and acceptance of myself as flesh, and bone, and blood.

Until around my mid-twenties, my experience of myself was filled with considerable pain, physically, but even more so, in heart and mind and spirit. The realities surrounding my left hip—its malformation, all the surgeries, pins through my bone that were tightened daily for weeks to force my femur to grow (necessary torture so I could have reconstructive surgery), made pain a constant. To this day, just the thought of getting blood drawn sends my heart racing; there are so many memories of nurses digging to find a new vein for an IV in the arm of a very little girl. Makes my skin crawl.

As I moved into adolescence, this split between the reality of what it meant to be this particular body and what seemed reasonable to hope for about myself got more difficult. I began to struggle with my weight. I had to get glasses. Those hideous orthopedic shoes I’ve written about before. It’s not that there weren’t good times and privilege; absolutely there were. It’s just that, at a time when you are constantly comparing yourself, I became more and more alienated and filled with despair by a body that left me feeling isolated, that failed me as I tried to find a place in the world where I fit. For so many of those years, I lived in my head and in the books that opened worlds I could inhabit free of all that was wrong with me.

Then, the day finally came when l fell in love, madly, deeply, passionately. After a particularly wonderful day with my love, I lay in bed that night thinking, this must be what it is like to be a ballerina when she is able to be more true to dance, move more gracefully, than she ever has before. Who I had been that day, what I had been able to offer without shame or self-consciousness, was only possible in this particular body, this one and no other. I had done everything I could to leave my body in any way I could, and the only hope for a meaningful life was to find my way back to it. Love allowed me to discover there was, in fact, a way back.

I reached a different milestone the year Sherod began to work on his DMin in Chicago. We lived in Memphis at the time, and he’d be gone for 6 weeks that summer. I was determined not to be a clingy, needy wife, even if we’d never been apart for so long. I asked myself what I might do to be true to myself in the meantime. I am the granddaughter of a sailor and sea captain. I don’t know why I thought that mattered but it seemed reason enough to enroll in a 10-day sailing class by taught by women for women, on the west coast of Florida. I think the picture that follows says it all…

Me, Circa 1967

The next big step came with my mother’s death. For a number of reasons, I began to walk every evening. At first I went to the end of the street we lived on. I kept pushing though, so by the time Sherod and I left Fort Lauderdale, I was walking 6 or so miles every night, and had completed a walking half-marathon that was part of the Mercedes Benz Marathon in Birmingham. I got strong enough (and brave enough) to go zip-lining through the rain forest in Panamá, on a visit to see my dad.

Alto Volcán, Panamá 2012

In 2013, also took a 30 day sabbatical/silent retreat that allowed me to do magnificent hiking around Lake Tahoe. Each part of the quest helped me discover something new, usually a gift of being myself in my body, that pulled me deeper into hope and joy.

Tahoe, 2013

Then, shortly after I returned from my retreat in Tahoe , life as I had been carefully building it, unraveled. The details are still painful to consider but on June 20, 2014, Sherod and I began the move to Alabama. As we pulled out of Fort Lauderdale, I remember seriously wondering if I would be able to make it through this move, started feeling like I would end up crushed beyond recognition.

Sherod stayed until the movers unloaded our household goods in our new home in Lowndesboro but he still had to finish up his pastorate in Fort Lauderdale. He headed back south and then, I was on my own for almost 3 months. After Sherod left, I started getting to know the 4 acres of our small farm/homestead and realized it was up to me to make sure the garden around our house and our two pastures did not grow wild beyond all reason. All we had was a push mower and for those 12 weeks, when I wasn’t busy with my part-time job, I mowed. I mean, I mowed a lot. Most days, I cried as I went back and forth from one end of the property to the other. At night, I’d go to bed so exhausted I was asleep in less than 5 minutes; it was good, restful, renewing, sleep.

Having a body able to do the hard work of mowing through an Alabama summer gave me a way to grieve what needed to be grieved, ensured bitterness and despair did not take hold. I found myself in a healthier space than I’d ever had before, unafraid to look at what had happened, not just what others had done and said, but also my own failures. My tears were a baptism of repentance and in equal measure, of forgiveness. I was set free to find my way in a new version of life, the kind I think is meant in the Gospel of John when Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life, and life abundant.”

These last years have been about navigating through a world turned upside down, still looking for, and sometimes finding, pieces of myself I did not want to accept, tried to abandon, or at least ignored. I can’t imagine I’m that different from anybody else. I’m going to take that month off, come September 1, because the quest does continue. What I’ve also figured out is this time will also be about pilgrimage and sabbath. (to be continued)

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