Most authors who write about pilgrimage recommend carrying some kind of a journal in which to record your impressions. I’d go a step further and suggest you write about not only what transpired during the pilgrimage itself, but also what was going on before and afterwards. This way, you can see if the trip really was a pilgrimage—an inner journey as well as an outer one—or simply a vacation.
I realized this the other day when I looked at my journal from 1995. Reading it, I saw that the year had been a pivotal one for me, and that the year itself had pivoted around a trip Mary Lee and I made to Key West and the Ernest Hemingway Mansion.
Before we went, my journal was filled with quotations about art and creativity—for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s saying, “The creation of beauty is art”—coupled with paragraph after paragraph lamenting that my own writing was stifled and stale:
“Five years ago, I told myself it would take 10 years of constant writing to develop any skill and that there would be huge obstacles along the way, and now after five years, here are the obstacles, but not the obstacles I imagined: criticism, rejection slips, time. There’s just this feeling of lethargy. I have trouble even reading a short story, let alone writing one.”
Since I had begun writing fiction after the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter from cancer, in some ways to create something to take her place, in some ways to honor her interest in art by trying to carry on her creative legacy, this lethargy contributed to the shame I felt for not being a better father. I couldn’t protect her while she was alive, and now I couldn’t honor her after her death.
When Mary Lee and I visited Key West, the Hemingway Mansion was not my top priority. Like a lot of readers and writers, I no longer worshipped at the altar of Ernest Hemingway. His writing, with the exception of a few short stories and a couple of novels, now seemed a funhouse parody of masculinity. I wanted to see beaches, nightlife, cool restaurants. Still, in my journal, I recalled that before there was Jack Kerouac as an influence in my life, there was Hemingway, not so much for his writing, but for his star power. I write about sitting in Snap Moxcey’s barber shop looking at Life Magazine and photographs of Hemingway in Africa posing with the big game he’d shot, Hemingway at the bull fights in Spain, Hemingway with movie actresses Ingrid Bergman and Ava Gardner, Hemingway piloting his boat, Pilar, in the Caribbean. It was then that I first began to picture myself as a writer, on the cover of Time magazine after winning the Nobel Prize for literature, standing under a spruce tree on the rocky coast of Maine staring out to sea.
But when we toured the mansion, it wasn’t Hemingway’s fame that fed my sense of failure; it was his creativity:
“2-21-95: How all occasions do inform against me! Regardless of how one feels about old Papa, the house is a monument to the creative impulse. The African art, the marble cutting board in the kitchen, the headboard of his bed created from the hand-carved gate of some Spanish monastery, his fifty 6-toed cats, the fountain fashioned from a large vase and part of the men’s urinal at “Sloppy Joe’s Bar,” his workroom connected by a cat-walk from the house, which apparently only he navigated, the animal trophies on the wall—all show a powerful and imaginative mind, at least compared to mine.”
One of the values of a pilgrimage, however, is that it helps you regain what some writers call your “beginner’s mind,” that you return home with renewed awareness, and that you start to strike out on a new path.
I knew none of this, but I see that on the plane ride back home from Florida, even as I continue to lament my lack of creativity, I used my journal to write drafts of essays for an application to a Humanities Institute program called “Shaping Identities: Autobiography and the American Experience,” which asked me to look at my life as a mirror of our nation’s experiences. I began to see not only how McCarthyism, the cold war, the Kennedy Assassination, and Viet Nam had impacted my life, but also how the research I’d been doing on the house I’d bought from my grandmother mirrored my experience of Laurie’s death, in that every owner of this house prior to my grandparents had lost at least one child.
After that, my journal entries begin to focus more about my spiritual life than on my writing life. Instead of lamenting rejection slips or sounding envious of the success of a member of my writing group, I have notes from a series of retreats at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, an Episcopal monastery in Massachusetts. I have notes from Brother David Allen’s retreat on Julian of Norwich, a talk Brother James Koester gave on George Herbert, and—what fascinates me now—pages of notes from Brother Martin Smith’s retreat called “Co-creating with God.” Brother Martin defined creativity as making meaning out of chaos. The Genesis creation story, he said, tells us that all creativity comes from God. And, he continued, God expects creativity back from us. “We are not on this earth to execute some master plan,” my notes read. “God is not going to tell you the meaning of your life. God wants the two of you to create it together.”
Nowhere in my journal does it appear that I saw the connection between the program on “Shaping Identities” and Brother Martin’s retreat, but it seems to me now that this was when I began to look at writing as a way for me to find out more about myself and my grief, shape it, concretize it, and give it meaning.
In what seemed at the time like another unrelated event, I took a workshop through Maine Writers and Publishers on journal writing, learning new ways to use my journal, so that the later pages of this 1995 journal are full of dialogues with my fears, my monsters, my journal itself, lists of goals, obstacles to my goals, dreams, sketches, diagrams, floor plans.
All of which, I would say now, prepared me for the end of 1995, and bilateral hip surgery. Laid up from November to the end of the year, I read Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain about his leaving a promising writing life in New York City to become a Trappist monk in Kentucky, and ended my journal for 1995 by reviewing the year and contemplating my own future. I saw that I’d grown more that year than I’d previously thought, but that, rather than linear, my growth had been circular, like climbing a mountain in a spiral motion, passing the same spots, but at different levels, gaining a little greater perspective each time. For example:
“…I notice that once I stopped obsessing about publishing and quitting teaching to become a WRITER, I started enjoying writing again. I am still a teacher more than I’m a writer. What I need to work towards is the idea that I’m a Christian more than I am a teacher. When I’ve lived the year this way, the year has been satisfying; when I haven’t…I’ve fragmented into these tiny “selves,” banging into each other like drunken pigmies….”
Twenty-two years later, although I still waver in my faith, I continue to believe that creativity, no matter what form it may take, rather than fame is the way to give meaning the world. And creativity begins with seeing the world through new eyes, which is one of the values of pilgrimage. Even if I don’t perceive any new awareness at the time, I can look back through my journal and see where I crossed a threshold to some new understanding, which helps me recognize a pattern to what seemed at the time like chaos.
Which helps me believe that “Yes, Ricky, there really is a God.”