Wanderer, there is no path,
the path is made by walking.
Mention “pilgrimage” and folks usually think of walking the Santiago de Compostela or similar perambulations. Walking is synonymous with pilgrimage. In the Middle Ages, Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims walked to the tomb of Thomas Becket, while serious pilgrims walked from Europe to the Holy City of Jerusalem. The practice of walking the labyrinth began then in order that older or more infirm pilgrims who couldn’t make it to Jerusalem could at least take their own spiritual walk.
So maybe one reason I’ve come to see my life as a pilgrimage is that I’ve spent a large part of it walking.
As kids growing up in Yarmouth, Maine, we walked to the school, to the store, to the ball field, to work. When I had back surgery in 1978, I was told to walk ten miles a day for three months, which I did, even though those months were January, February, and March. When I moved back to Yarmouth, I began walking around town, one foot in the twenty-first century and one foot in 1955. Now living in Brunswick, Maine, I often walk the two miles to and from down town. I co-facilitate a contemplative silence group, where we practice not only sitting but also walking meditation: focusing on raising, lifting, pushing, dragging, touching, and pressing down each foot—to remind us that the body is always in the present moment.
And some of the major formative experiences of my life—the joy of first love, the pain of homesickness, the surrealistic disorientation of grief—have come while I was walking.
Whenever I hear Johnny Mathis sing “Misty,” I am immediately pulled back to an autumn Sunday in 1959, walking home from an afternoon with my first girlfriend. Floating was more like it, down Spring Street to East Main, to Willow, to Bridge Street, past white houses shaded by leaves shining ruby and golden in the sun, the smell of burning leaves like incense, buoyed by the taste of Susan’s lips, the feel of her breast in my hand, the smell of her “White Shoulders” perfume, and the memory of Mathis’s high tenor: “Oooonnnn my own, would I wander through this wonderland alone…” playing on her hi fi as we kissed.
On other Sunday, November 24, 1963, I walked through the evening mist and fog and the almost empty campus of the University of Maine at Orono, still in shock after the events of the weekend: Walter Cronkite’s voice, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time”; the closed casket draped in black crepe lying first in the East Room of the White House before being taken by the horse-drawn caisson to the Capitol Rotunda; the subsequent killing of a puffy-eyed Lee Harvey Oswald; the funeral procession.
I remember walking past Dunn Hall and Hannibal Hamlin and Oak Hall, standing like silent spectators at my one-man procession, the afternoon’s funeral drums beating in my head—dum dum dum da dum—trying to feel like Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise surveying a dying America, but instead, feeling like a twenty-year old hick from Maine, lost and unhappy. Following the sidewalk down the hill, through some white birches looking ghostly in the misty light cast by the street lamps, past Sigma Nu and Beta Theta Pi fraternities. Past the President’s house, where on the lawn, the few remaining leaves of an oak tree hung like flags at half-mast. Past the Women’s Athletic Building and Deering Hall to the UMaine farm buildings with their smell of hay and shit and the sounds of horses moving in one of the barns. The mist turned to steady rain. I lit a cigarette and pulled the collar of my jacket around my neck. I realized that not one person in the entire world knew where I was, or, more important, cared, except for my family. A feeling of loneliness such as I had never felt before, full of emptiness, longing, and sorrow cascaded over me. I began to cry.
During the months of November and December of 1988, I walked a mile each way back and forth between the Ronald McDonald House in Bangor, Maine to the fourth floor of the Eastern Maine Medical Center, where my eighteen-year-old daughter lay dying of cancer. I especially remember the walk back, through what I still think of as the bowels of the hospital. Confused and angry after a day by Laurie’s bedside watching her slip further and further away from me, I’d take the elevator to the main lobby, walk through a waiting room, around a corner and down a corridor lined at first with photographs of lighthouses and lobster boats, and then with memorial plaques hanging like rows of wooden shields along the wall. Often, I’d pause here, read a name or two, and wonder how long it would be until Laurie’s memorial plaque joined them. (About a year as it turned out.)
Past a row of gray lockers, the cinderblock walls turned to brick. I’d come to the laundry rooms, passing men and women in light-blue coats and plastic hairnets, looking like zombies in the dim florescent light as they pushed carts, baskets, and gurneys. Further on, metal and wooden doors marked Records Retention Center Office, Respiratory Medicine Office, Hospital Staff Only, Procedure Room #1, Procedure Room #2. Machines hummed. The corridor turned left and narrowed. The lighting grew dimmer, the air damper. Pipes and valves clunked overhead. More rooms: Data Processing, Computers, and Housekeeping Maintenance. When I turned another corner into a still narrower corridor, the walls closed in on me, and it was here I sometimes heard voices of people walled up like victims of an Edgar Allen Poe short story, sensed ax murders following me down the hall.
Just when it seemed the corridor would dead-end, a turn to the left led me to a narrow door, where I’d suddenly feel excreted out into a parking lot by a river, the light, even on the darkest days momentarily blinding me. But when my eyes adjusted to behold the cascading water and the russet oak trees and white birches on the river banks, their beauty was more painful than the ugliness I’d been living with for the previous six hours.
These days, I do a lot of walking with grandchildren. Research has shown that babies are happiest when they’re carried while parents, grandparents, or the like are walking at a speed of three to four miles an hour. I know one grandfather who’s pretty happy at this speed as well.
I’m also finding that walking with older grandchildren is a good reminder that, as Christine Valters Paintner writes, “Ultimately, the pilgrimage journey asks us…to relinquish our grasp on certainty and control.” Have you ever tried taking a two-year-old and a four-year-old on a walk? They go where they want to, not where you do. Do you have someplace you need to be? Tough. Time does not exist.
But Valters Paintner goes on to say, “In that process we allow ourselves…to receive gifts far bigger than our own limited imaginations could ponder.” Amen. My grandchildren notice everything, and usually with a delight I’d long forgotten. What is more beautiful than a child’s smile? More joyous than her laugh?
Most of the paths I’ve walked have been well-worn ones. I’m guessing most of you have also walked (if not physically, then emotionally) paths of love, sorrow, happiness, and grief. But I also suspect each of us still has to find our own way forward along these paths—walk them as if they’ve never been walked before.