While I’ve written quite a bit in these blogs about the difference between pilgrimages and vacations, there are, of course, other reasons to travel: education and escape, for example. The man in this photograph would probably tell you he’s traveling for educational reasons; I think, however, he’s a fugitive, trying to escape his past and his pain.
According to the journal I kept for this trip, this photograph was taken on Saturday, July 21, 1990. The place is Stratford-Upon-Avon, and the guy is standing in front of Shakespeare’s birthplace. His wife Mary Lee (who snapped the picture) and he are in England, taking a summer program called “Shakespeare’s World.” That evening, along with the rest of their winter teacher/summer student classmates, they’ll watch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” before getting on the bus and returning to Cambridge University for another week of classes.
When I first looked at the man in this photograph, I noticed our similar tastes. We both wear hats (not crazy about the one he’s wearing, but he likes it), we both prefer chinos to blue jeans, and we both keep a notebook in our shirt pocket. Although the snappy cap and the camera suggest he’s a tourist, he, like me, hates identifying himself this way, maybe because we both grew up in Maine, “Vacationland,” where we learned to disdain visitors we called “summer complaints.”
As I continued looking at the photograph, I began to notice differences between this man and me, some of which only I would know. For example, he’s taller than I am by several inches, and his face is freer of wrinkles, lines, and age spots. He doesn’t have a fatty lump on his back. He’s got a beard, which as I remember, grows and wanes almost as often as the moon. Same with his hair, which I don’t have much of any more.
When I decided to write about the picture, I was hoping to discover that the journey to Stratford shows that he thinks of himself the way I do these days: as a pilgrim. After all, what English teacher doesn’t feel a deep connection with Shakespeare? But deep down I knew words like “pilgrim” and “pilgrimage” aren’t part of his vocabulary. He and Mary Lee have just decided not to stand in the long line going into Shakespeare’s birthplace. He’d much rather leave, watch some street entertainers, and get another pint at a nearby pub called the “Slug and Lettuce.”
No, the man thinks of himself as an academic, a teacher. After all, teaching has been the only fulltime job he’d ever held, and he’d been doing it for twenty-five years. Writers are his heroes, and watching a student’s eyes light up when he’s able to connect him or her to Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet is one of life’s great pleasures, along with sex and booze. When he and Mary Lee were looking at travel opportunities, they chose an academic program, in order to—as they wrote in their applications to their respective school boards for continuing education credits—improve their teaching.
The problem is the man in the photograph is not sure he wants to teach anymore. Certainly not in high school, where his seventeen and eighteen-year-old students remind him of his daughter. He has no patience with their excuses, their backtalk, their acting up. “Why are you alive,” he wants to yell sometimes, “and my brilliant, sensitive, compassionate daughter is dead?”
The truth is that what this man wants to do this summer is escape from his pain. The more I gazed into the photograph, the more clearly I saw a pale, halting, self-conscious man, picking at his camera strap as if it’s part of a straight jacket, waving his arm as if he wants to fly away.
Except that he has no idea which direction he wants to go.
Dictionary.com defines “fugitive” as “a person who is fleeing from prosecution, or intolerable circumstances.” Both are true of this man. Since his daughter’s death a year and a half earlier, he has prosecuted himself mercilessly, convinced that his divorce and remarriage caused his daughter’s cancer. And life has become, if not intolerable, than unpleasant—a wary, static existence, punctuated by waves of pain, less frequent than before, but as a result, more unexpected, stronger. He and his wife eye each other warily from behind their respective barricades, as careful with their words as with sticks of dynamite, afraid some careless comment might light the fuse and blow their marriage to pieces.
Besides trying to get away from his students, his unhappy home life, and his guilt, he’s also trying to flee from God. At least, the God of his understanding: a Super Saddist, who gets His kicks torturing innocent eighteen-year-old girls. It would be easier if he didn’t believe in God at all, but he tried that, tried to disappear into Albert Camus’ existentialism, but he can’t. So he alternates between raging at God and running away, like Jonah.
And like Jonah, he’s finding out, there is no escaping the past. Three weeks into the program, his wife is missing her two sons spending the summer with their father in Colorado, upset that, because of the time difference, she hasn’t been able to talk to them on the phone. Which always triggers this nasty voice in his head: “Well, they’re alive, aren’t they?”
He’s sick of feeling the stab in his heart from the question, “How many children do you and your wife have?” and when one woman in the program looked at a photograph of his wife’s son and remarked on how much Jeremy looked like both Mary Lee and him, he thought he might barf up his Green King Ale. Instead of Shakespeare, he keeps hearing F. Scott Fitzgerald: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
While I feel sorry for the fugitive in the photograph, I also want to tell him that he will return from England carrying the seeds of his rebirth. Part of the Shakespeare program is to visit English cathedrals, and by the time he leaves England, he will have spent time in St. Benedict’s, King’s College Cathedral and St. John’s College Cathedral in Cambridge, Salisbury Cathedral, St. Mary’s in Bath, Peterborough Cathedral, Ely Cathedral, and Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. Because for most people these days, these are places of historical, rather than spiritual sites, he doesn’t connect them with his anger and fear of God; rather, he will find in these old cathedrals a certain peace, and also a certain hope. He will see ancient buildings comprised of stones even older, created by a confluence of spirit, sweat, intellect, and prayer. Many are in a state of continual renovation, and he will start to wonder if the fact that these ancient stone monuments to God and the human spirit need to be—and can be—periodically repaired from damage may offer hope that he can rebuild his own life.
Returning to Maine, recalling these three weeks, he will see in these remodeled cathedrals that he needs to come up with not only a goal, but also a blueprint for getting there. The following fall, he will get learn about Centering Prayer, which becomes his handbook of instructions for not running from his fears, to simply watch them, watch himself react, and then let them go. He will, in the words of the twelve-step program he joins, “Let go and let God.” Not God the Super Saddist, but God the Great Embrace.
My journal tells me that after Mary Lee took this picture, we walked through the park by the River Avon to Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried. The church, like everywhere else in Stratford, was full of people, but, I write, the mood was far less frenetic. That’s because (and I quote from my journal), “…as Mary Lee said, they were pilgrims, not tourists.”
I’m pretty sure this was the first time, I ever heard anyone I knew talk about someone’s trip being a pilgrimage.
It was certainly not the last.