“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” — Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
A year and a half ago, Mary Lee and I booked a cruise up the Norwegian coast to the Arctic Circle and back along the coast of Scotland and England. Two weeks before we were supposed to leave, I was diagnosed with a “moderately severe” blocked left main artery in my heart, and, as I’ve written about (https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2019/08/), had open-heart surgery on the day we were supposed arrive in Norway. Last winter, we rebooked the trip. In March, COVID-CRUD shut down the world, and our cruise was canceled again. I think it’s not only possible but probable that this is a trip we’ll never make.
Yeah, I’m disappointed, but in looking back at other trips and pilgrimages I’ve made, I can see that there have been times where not going where I planned to go has given me what I’ve needed. Maybe this is one of those times.
I’m thinking of the first day Mary Lee and I walked from our guest house in Jerusalem into the Old City. Our plan was to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. But do you think we could find it? We wandered narrow street after narrow street, fighting the heat, the souvenir sellers, the money changers, going, I later found out, in circles. I found myself growing hot, tired, and frustrated, first at Mary Lee for wanting to come to Israel, then at God for making it so hot, and then as long as I was blaming God for things, flashing back to those days when my daughter was dying and each day seemed a confusing maze through which I wandered, alone and lost. Then, all of a sudden we were standing in what seemed like a big parking lot in front of the Western Wall: huge blocks of cream-colored limestone called Jerusalem stone, the remnants of the old Jewish temple. At the base of the wall, men and women rocked and bobbed. I heard chanting. As if the wall were a magnet, I found myself pulled toward it. As I neared the wall, I noticed 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 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. It was the most spiritual moment of the entire pilgrimage.
When Mary Lee and I were making plans to see the giant Redwoods in California, we intended to stay for a few days at the same European-style hotel in San Francisco that we’d been in a few years earlier, but it was full, so I chose what I thought was a comparable hotel. Nope, this one was run-down, dirty, and at night, a place for battalions of mosquitoes to gather for R & R. But what I hadn’t known when I made the reservations was that this hotel was just down the street from City Lights Book Store, home for the writers who created what was called the Beat Generation: Allen Ginsberg, Gary Synder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jack Kerouac, one of the towering figures of my youth. Now, fifty years later, I was beginning to become active in Al Anon. Visiting City Lights, remembering Kerouac’s life, and rereading his books were what I needed to better understand the effects alcoholism has had on me. (See “Pilgrimage to City Lights,” https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/07/)
I’ve just made a list of some of my other plans that haven’t panned out: study forestry and become a district ranger somewhere in the American West; earn a PhD. In Maine Literature and become a professor at the University of Maine at Orono; buy a house on the coast of Down East, Maine and father two children; become chair of the English Department at a large high school in Southern Maine and, when I retire, become a consultant for the College Board; move back to my old home town and become a pillar in the community.
And yet, sitting at my computer on this foggy morning in Maine, I see that if these plans hadn’t failed, my life would be the poorer. (Actually, I’m not sure I’d be alive.) Failing as a forester led me to the healing joy of literature at a time when I was lost and confused about who I was; not becoming a college professor meant I could pass on what I’d learned about college expectations to high school students and feel the joy of watching a light bulb go off in a seventeen-year-old’s head and feeling I’d made a difference in the world; a painful divorce led to the love that I’d been looking for all my life; taking early retirement from teaching meant that I’ve been able to devote myself to creating, which I’ve needed to do to offset living with the death of my daughter; leaving my home town for a second time means that I finally feel that I’ve stepped out of the shadow of my family disease and grown up.
I have friends who would tell me that this shows that God has some kind of master plan for me and that I’m “right where I should be”—that we’re always “right where we should be.” Well, tell that to someone who’s just lost a child, or to a child whose parents have both been killed in a drive-by shooting, or to a father of four who’s just lost his job because of the pandemic or to a woman just diagnosed with breast cancer, or … well, I hope you get the picture.
No, I’m not talking about predestination or that we live in the best of all possible worlds. I’m describing what seems to me something even more miraculous: our ability (I call it grace) not only to survive, but also to thrive, even when our best laid plans fall through and all appears out of control and hopeless.
And this is what gives me faith not only that my life will become fuller if I don’t go cruising the coast of Norway, but also that we as a species, apparently lost in a pandemic none of us planned for, will grow stronger, wiser, and more compassionate from being where we need to be.