The 29th leg av the Camino.


I have always been fascinated by the sacred.

I must have been about 8 when my friend and I climbed the brick fence behind our babysitter’s apartment complex and visited the Catholic church. It was unlocked on a weekday morning.

It was also empty. And since all either of us knew about Catholic church was what we had seen on television, we thought it would be fine to “play” church. When the priest showed up I really couldn’t understand his fury. We were in no way intending to be sacrilegious – or even naughty.

Up until that point – up until the shaming – I’d wanted to be Catholic. I’d wanted the ritual that seemed to be a kind of manifestation of belonging. In the Baptist church the pastor sometimes called us a “flock”, but people certainly didn’t treat one another as though they belonged.

There was nothing very special about us. No incense, no wine. We had grape juice and crackers once a month. And Grandpa fell asleep just like he did in his chair at home in front of the television. No one responded with hallelujah, no one shook like the Shakers, and no one talked in tongues.

That’s not true. Once a woman did, and my grandfather and the other deacons escorted her out, and the pastor apologized on her behalf. He said she’d been under stress. Then he went back to his sermon.

Church was white – in so many ways – White. Straight pews and straight hemlines. And it smelled of Lysol and White Shoulders perfume. The pastor wore a suit and looked the the insurance salesmen who’d shown up at Grandma’s mobile home. Crumpled. Sweaty.

In college I was in a production of The Lark. We carried candles and incense and chanted, and I fainted. The following year, another production with Gregorian chanting and candles. I fainted again. No wonder I connected the theater with the sacred long before I had read about Artaud or Grotowski and other people looking for the sacred in the storytelling space.

When I was very young – too young to remember – my mother belonged to a Quaker congregation. Or at least that was a story I knew. I tried to find a home in a Quaker community just a few years ago, but staring in silence for 45 minutes is not a great choice for someone with bipolar tendencies: a small doll set on a little Shaker chair across the room began moving for me, and it took me months to get my feet back on the ground. My doctor suggested neither Quaker silence nor a Buddhist retreat would be a good idea anytime in the near future.

I suppose, in a way, this is a sacred story:

I run on the trails. I stop and listen. This is my church now. My cathedrals and chapels. I notice – without learning the names of things by rote. I squat to pee in the scrub pines and take note of the unfurling fern of some sort – nothing delicate about it. It’s thick and dark and wet. Simultaneously I see the Alien creature folded in on itself, and a fetus unfolding. Life is a mystery, and always frightening. It’s smells can make you dizzy. Can make you wretch. Can make you acutely aware of want.

This might be the fear that the sweaty pastor G. was always talking about. The awe that made the people in the Bible tremble.

Maybe this is my only hope for a Sangha. Congregation. Prayer. Meditation. Writing.

My bared butt in the breeze, knowing there are snakes in the rocks nearby. Maybe this is my only true sacred story?

 

 

The 27th leg of Camino.


I’m falling behind now, tending a fever and a headache.

Someone pointed out that it’s not unusual to fall ill at the end of a long project. I ended a long project on Friday and have been looking forward to starting on something new. The efforts of our lives overlap and there is no real time for a clean break or fresh start. There is always something the dirty laundry. Maybe that the body forces a break is “not unusual”.

I suppose, though, it is unusual to be so paranoid about a mild illness. I’ve been trying not to immerse myself in the waves of information coming over the internet. I am trying to let go of the feeling of urgency and to stay in the moments, instead of simultaneously speculating about what the moments mean. Might mean. There is a false security in predicting and embracing prophecies – even the dark ones.

Before I came down with a fever, I was running again. Doing yoga in the early morning: in camel pose, watching a wisp of cloud move over the sky.  I’m trying to see this illness as a kind of deferment. Nothing more. I’ve been temped to take down Sontag’s book from the shelf to read again, but the headache – and now the catching up I have to do. Want to do. I want my body back. I want the ease of movement.

In February, we ran along the Northumberland beaches and then stayed a couple days in Edinburgh because I wanted to see Mary King’s Cross. One of those cheesy, historical tourist traps I love. The guide talked about the plague when it came to Mary King’s Cross. The doctor’s plague masks, the dead. The whole while this virus was in the back of my mind: when we were standing crowded together under the tent at the start of the race, when I lay on the masseuse’s table the following day, in the airport on the way home. All the bad dreams we have in our heads. What do we pay attention to? It turned out we were about a week ahead of the virus. But things could have been different.

We have been lucky here these months. It’s been a mind-game trying to hold the reality in a global perspective, a local perspective, and a potential perspective. It’s not over – though I was supposed to be on the train yesterday and at work again.

What am I doing with my life? I do take my stock of my choices often. Probably too often. Three times in my life, I thought I had only moments to live. Someone asked me recently if surviving the blood clot made me more grateful for life. I wish it had. I wish I’d had some kind of literature-worthy epiphany about how best to live my life. Instead, I had a relapse of CPTSD symptoms and a very slow emotional convalescence. I won’t be writing a self-help book anytime soon.

This whole virtual journey has been about finding out what I want. Recognizing myself as I interact with the world. Making choices based on desires. Desires of doing, not being. I am not sure I have ever wished for things. But I have wished for talents. And to be honest, I am not sure how much those talents were only means to an end: respect, validation, approval.

As our guide asks us today to consider our dreams for the future, I think about these wishes I’ve had over the years. Some forgotten. Some unexpectedly fleeting: but had. I still wish for talents – as a means, and as an end. But something has shifted. I dream of cultivating joy.

And just as creating a good novel is as much a matter of prudent editing as is it good writing, perhaps cultivating joy is as much about removing judgement and criticism as it nurturing beauty.