No Matter how much you Prepare, You’ll Never be Ready

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My wife and I first started talking about going on some kind of walking pilgrimage after seeing the movie, The Way, in which Martin Sheen’s character walks the El Camino de Santiago from the Pyrenees through the interior of northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela in honor of his son, who’d died making that pilgrimage. Reading about the 500 miles of the Camino, however, convinced us that it was nothing two people dancing around 70 were ready for, so we began looking at other pilgrimages, eventually finding St. Cuthbert’s Way, a 62-mile hike from Melrose on the Scottish Border, where one of the early English church’s most revered saints started his religious life in 650AD, to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the Northumberland Coast of England, where he served as both prior and bishop.

For the next six months, Mary Lee and I prepared. We booked our flights to and from Edinburgh. We researched travel companies who reserve B&B’s, transport luggage, provide information about where to stay each day and what to see, recommend where to eat in the evening. We watched every You Tube video there was on St. Cuthbert’s Way. I read ten books on pilgrimages, hiking trips, or St. Cuthbert. (Bibliography available upon request.) We increased our walking from one to four miles a day, with eight to fourteen mile walks on the weekends. Because the last two miles of St. Cuthbert’s Way are traditionally walked barefoot at low tide across to Holy Island, we walked Maine’s beaches carrying our shoes around our necks like amulets against injuries which I was afraid might keep us from going. ( I took out travel insurance, just in case.)

All of which led to multiple trips to L.L. Bean for walking sticks, backpacks, water bladders, a compass, a pedometer, two hiking skirts for Mary Lee, a fleece jacket for me, microfiber underwear and a half dozen pairs of socks for each of us. I went to a podiatrist, who looked at my high arches and prescribed custom orthotics. I had my annual physical, my annual eye-exam, and my semi-annual dentist visit to make sure I was prepared.

Prepared, yes, ready, no. Our first surprise came the night before we started hiking. Nothing I read told us that when Melrose Abbey closes, nobody checks to see if there’s anyone still on the grounds before locking the gates, so that in order to leave, Mary Lee and I had to clamber up a stone wall and hoist ourselves over a wrought iron fence designed by Vlad the Impaler.

And do you think we could find the beginning of St. Cuthbert’s Way? Not until we’d walked by it three times. No one tells you that the start of the Way, marked on a sign with words about the size of the bottom row of print on my eye exam chart, is through an alley, past two trash bins, and down a cement walk. It’s only after you make a left and walk a muddy path around a hill that you find the 133 wooden steps that mark the real beginning of the pilgrimage.

If 133 steps sounds like a lot, they were only the beginning of our climb up the Eildon Hills. Nothing I read, nothing I saw, prepared me for the up-and-down nature of St. Cuthbert’s Way. To be honest, there’s nothing really high (Wideopen Hill, at 1208 feet, is the highest point) or sheer, or steep, unless you’re from southern Maine, where we call a 485-foot pimple on the face of the landscape Bradbury Mountain. I would estimate that we spent about two-thirds of our walk either going up or coming down. Our legs were fine; our wind was not.

The guidebooks, the videos, don’t talk about shit. Many show bucolic photographs of sheep and cows dotting the countryside, but none show them standing and defecating on your path. Once we had to walk through a dozen young bulls, and while they all moved out of our way, what they deposited did not.

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 On the other hand, nothing I saw or read prepared me for the beauty of gorse bushes in the fog, their spiky branches laced with dew-covered spider webs, the huge oaks and sycamores and maple and beech trees whose gnarled roots and branches look like something out of J.R.R. Tolkien, a flock of white geese splashing in the River Teviot, the ruins of three lovely abbeys and a castle, the smell of wild garlic, the sight of feral goats, the views from Wideopen Hill and the Cheviots, acres of purple heather, the cool eeriness of St. Cuthbert’s Cave, our first glimpse of the ocean, the wild sound of seals as we walked across the sands to Lindisfarne.

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I should have known that no matter how much you prepare, you’ll never be ready. I’d had plenty of time to prepare for the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter, but I sure as hell wasn’t ready for what came next. Three months after Laurie was diagnosed in March with Primitive Neuroectodermal Turmor (PNET), the doctors at Dana Farber were clear that her chances of survival were slim. When, after radiation and chemotherapy, cancer reappeared in her pelvis in September, those chances dropped to nothing. Her mother and I spent the next three months preparing for her death. The day after Laurie died, I recall telling one of the nurses that I’d already done my grieving, and now it was time to start living again.

Talk about bullshit. Nothing I had done, felt, or imagined made me ready for the next (as I write) twenty-seven years: the anger, the guilt, the tears, the terror, the demolition of everything I’d ever believed about life, the universe, and everything.

Even after all these years, I can feel my body chemistry change around Halloween and a weight lift off my shoulders after Christmas. And I can prepare for that. What I am never ready for is how I will react each year. Some years I try to sleep for two months; some years I write suicidal short stories; some years angry letters to the editor or to people who piss me off. This past year, after my cranky back’s being almost pain-free for a year or more, it throbbed and burned until December 24th, the day after the anniversary of Laurie’s death. After Christmas, the pain was gone.

At the same time, nothing in those months by Laurie’s side in the hospital prepared me for the way she entered, first, my dreams, then, my waking life. Her voice in my ear (“Look at that, Dad!) as the sun rose over the island of Lindisfarne. Her hand on my shoulder as Mary Lee and I sat on the side of Wideopen Hill eating our cheese and pickle sandwiches. The joy that I continue to get from her on-going presence. Since Laurie died, I have never felt so godforsaken and broken. I have also never been so grateful and joyous.

Of course, it’s important to prepare—who am I to argue with the Boy Scouts?—but as walking St. Cuthbert’s Way reminded me: the best way to prepare for any pilgrimage is to be ready for surprises.

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Some Stones from the Journey

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Go inside a stone,

That would be my way….

—Charles Simic

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Two weeks ago, I wrote of collecting stones from my various travels as a way to retain some of the pilgrimage experience. And I’m not talking just a few stones; I’m talking bowls of stones in almost every room of the house. Fountains of stones. Stone paper weights and bookends. Stones too large for the house lining the back patio.

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Before I ever thought much about pilgrimages, my then twelve-year-old daughter Laurie gave me a “rock concert” for Father’s day: a dozen small stones she’d painted blue and red and arranged in clay on a wooden oval. She painted black and white eyes, like a raccoon’s on each stone, a nice touch, typical of her attention to detail.

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You can also see her attention to detail in the watercolor she painted when she was seventeen. In the center of the picture, a pale turquoise hand reaches up through large green-brown stones toward a diaphanous orange petal drifting down from a cluster of flower blossoms. Laurie gave me this painting before her cancer diagnosis, when her future seemed bright and limitless, but after her death I spent hours sitting in front of that watercolor, feeling the desperation embodied in the hand as it reaches for one fragile blossom of beauty before being crushed under the weight of those stones.

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According to Hasidic legend, after Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments carved on stone tablets and saw the children of Israel worshipping a golden calf, he smashed the tablets to the ground, leaving behind a pile of stone fragments. The people, not bearing to leave the pieces there, picked them up and carried them in their pockets all through their desert wanderings toward the home they were hoping to find.

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When my wife, her son, and I decided it was time to “graduate” from the Center for Grieving Children, a local organization offering counseling to families who’ve lost loved ones, we each received a leather pouch containing four stones. Three were round and smooth, representing “the bright and shiny parts of you, the parts that have healed and grown, and are stronger than before.” One was flat and rough, “like the corner of your heart that may always feel a little rough and painful because of what’s happened to you.” I carried that stone for years. Sometimes when I was tearful or angry or felt especially guilty for Laurie’s death because of what I had or hadn’t done, it felt good to grip the stone tightly so that the edges cut into the palm of my hand. The surface of the stone was cracked and pitted, and sometimes I’d dig with my thumbnail into the crevices. That was very satisfying.

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Jungians talk about a “collective unconscious,” a mental package of instinctual feelings passed down from life’s beginnings. Perhaps, Robert M. Thorson, postulates in his book on New England stone walls, Stone by Stone, we all carry with us a primitive need for stones as the material for tools and weapons, as shelters for homes, as natural enclosures into which to drive game, as caches for hiding food, or as places for ambush or escape.

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For years after my daughter’s death, I dreamed of long, lop-side stones, smoke colored, lying on their sides. Sometimes they fit together in a wall or a house. Sometimes they were in the rubble of destroyed cities. Sometimes I used them to navigate my way through wilderness.

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Thorson explains that we imbibe stones every day, because unless artificially distilled, all of the earth’s water carries with it the dissolved constituents of stones. So in a way, all of us are built of stones.

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During a trip to England, the year after Laurie died, my wife bought me a stone from Salisbury Cathedral. It’s a block of ash-gray limestone, about two inches wide, four inches long, and three quarters of an inch thick. On the back, there’s a “Certificate of Authenticity,” part of which reads

 … centuries of storm and frost, and, more recently, the deadly corrosion of acid rain, have eaten the medieval stonework away. This fragment is a genuine piece of the original masonry removed from the spire, to be replaced with fresh stone from the same quarry.

When we’d arrived at Salisbury Cathedral I was disappointed to see the famous spire encased in scaffolding. Holding Mary Lee’s gift, however, comforted me with the knowledge that this ancient stone monument to both God and the human spirit needed to be—and could be—repaired, offering hope that I might do the same with my own life.

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The Psalmist cries, “Be my strong rock!” One of the Jewish names for God is “The Rock of Israel.” Saint Peter (from petros, meaning “rock”) talks about Jesus as the “stone that was rejected” becoming the chief cornerstone in the new house of faith.

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One of the holiest sites in the Old City of Jerusalem is The Western Wall, comprised of huge blocks of cream-colored limestone called Jerusalem stone. Several years after Laurie’s death, I stood before the wall, feeling the weight of the stones pressing down on me. Then I began to notice cracks and veins running through the stones, every cleft stuffed with prayers written on anything from Post-It Notes to legal stationery. I watched a man write on a piece of paper, fold it, and carefully tuck it into a fissure in the wall. He leaned forward and gently touched his lips to the stone. Although the night was warm, a chill ran up my arms as I remembered the night Laurie died, just after she had taken her last tortured breath, when I touched my lips to her forehead. Although I hadn’t planned to do so, I ripped a page out of my notebook, wrote a prayer for my daughter, and tucked it into one of the crevices.

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Some of the stones on the Scottish island of Iona are almost three billion years old. They have seen the formation of continents, the rise and fall of mountain ranges, several reversals of the magnetic poles, and at least five mass extinctions of the world’s species.

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They are also alive. Geologists tell us that if we could, as Charles Simic would like, go inside a stone, we’d find that it is comprised of elements made up of plus and minus charges, negative electrons circling protons like tiny solar systems. So that, far from being dead and inert—stone cold, a heart of stone—stones are full of energy.

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Which doesn’t surprise me. There’s a primordial power, a mysterious force in stones that has often made me wonder if that instead of my collecting all these stones over the years, these stones haven’t been collecting me.

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