Getting ready. Part One.

So the plan is to walk the Camino de Santiago. This Christian pilgrimage route in northern Spain has been trod since the 9th century. It honors the apostle James, according to legend buried in Spain. More legend involves James in the Christian effort to evict the Moors from Spain in a battle in 844 that didn’t actually happen. Nonetheless St. James managed to become the patron of Spain and gained the sobriquet Santiago Matamoros: the Moor killer. This historical context of conquest and killing for religion’s sake will be something to reflect on as I walk the route. History cannot be ignored, but it need not be a mire in which to get stuck.

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Why am I doing this? It seemed like a good idea when my husband said he planned to do it. I happen to like Spain, having visited Barcelona. I like walking with my husband; it is one of our chief shared joys. And when I inquired, I discovered I could get academic credit from my seminary. It added up to a number of reasons to take a long walk.

I see preparation in two ways: spiritual and physical. I’ve started the conditioning, walking with a weighted backpack. My husband has already procured various waterproof sacks into which things one wants to keep dry are to be stuffed. I am wearing my old hiking boots right now, hoping they will suffice. I don’t think medieval pilgrims went out and bought new gear for the journey.

I have begun looking forward to something that has heretofore inspired mostly anxiety. I write to train my thoughts to go in this direction, instead of idling in the shadows. The spiritual preparation is harder and therefore easier to ignore. But at both levels, I have to figure out what I need to carry and what I should leave behind.

Much more later.

Travel Anxiety

I had a period earlier in my life when I was fearful about flying. I remember having some exceptionally turbulent flights that might have been the cause. It took a few years for that worry to recede. But I begin to wonder if it hasn’t been replaced by pre-travel anxiety. I notice I dread getting ready for traveling.

I’m going to walk the Camino de Santiago, a millennium-old spiritual pilgrimage route in northern Spain, in late spring with my husband. I keep waiting to get excited. Instead I’m worrying: what if he gets sick? What if I get sick? What if the accommodations are dirty? I don’t know very much Spanish. Will the cats be OK without us? I hate cold showers. My backpack is too heavy (six pounds).

I started googling. “Travel anxiety” got 54 million hits. The first aha: I’m not alone. You mean I’m not the only one who worries about going to a foreign country where I don’t speak the language and I’ll be walking 250 kilometers and wondering what to do if it rains as I walk? My first step down a path of many kilometers is a small one of relief.

Lots of help pops up when I research the Camino, which I have already started. I may be anxious, but I am also preparing: Tickets bought. Walking with weighted pack. Reading guides. And worrying.

Anxiety about the unfamiliar is normal; this I know, and I know concrete things to lessen anxiety, all of which have to do with reducing the unknown to the extent I can without becoming a control freak: find a cat sitter. Figure out what I will carry and weigh it. Keep up with conditioning.

Some of it is fear of finding out things about myself: I expect to be able to do this. What if I can’t? Then who am I? The farther I go down the road of what-ifs, the more I detour from the main route of learning, planning, hoping. This particular journey is intended to make demands. The Way of St. James is supposed to be hard. It is also voluntary.

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It is also a spiritual journey. For me that means my husband will not be my only traveling companion. Jesus, whom I have gotten better acquainted with over the past six years at seminary, lived a life on his feet, going from town to town. One of his best known journeys took place after the resurrection, when he went unrecognized by two walking companions going to Emmaus. Jesus on the road inspired a lot of Western artists. Carl Jung regards the much (re)told story, stuck in the imaginations of so many, as an instance of the “magical traveling companion.” I plan to remember that while walking.

Under Development

My husband and I own vacant land at the very edge of far west suburban Chicago. We presently live 40 miles west of the city; the acreage is another half hour further west, just a little bit past a few scattered subdivisions but before you get to the extensive corn and soybean fields and fields in Illinois’ flat northwestern quadrant. It’s wooded land that adjoins the Fox River and a state park. We’ve been dithering for years about building a home on the property. We’ve had dozens of excuses over a dozen years for not doing anything: Can’t commute from there. Too remote. Not sure the schools are good enough. The neighbor’s house is too blue.

The kids are grown, the end of the commute is in sight. The river is still there, and you can see it in the winter when the trees are bare. You can also see the neighbor’s big blue, also still there.

My husband and I have been talking to a builder, and today, on an unnaturally mild February day when it was 65 degrees out and sunny, we walked our vacant land. We interred a cat out there years ago and paid our respects to her; Harley is pushing up weeds and wildflowers now. Under layers of leaf litter and fallen limbs (not all the trees are standing vigorously upright on our wooded land) little green things are emerging, maybe confused because it’s been so warm. We find something that looks like rue foliage. Here’s a black walnut; we look up to see which skinny tree has yielded it.

Scrubby understory is everywhere, brambly bent berry branches I recognize and varieties of weedy junk I can’t recognize without leaves. I let out a deep gardener’s sigh. Bill says he’ll bring a chain saw later in the season to clear a walking path to make it easier to descend to the river, which is downhill, a blue ribbon we see through the lanky trees. We need educated eyes to help us figure out what to keep and what to remove. Surely we’ll never need firewood. Two boulders halfway down to the river could make good sitting spots or points of orientation.

We leave a rope that outlines one possible edge for the house, one tiny dent in the uninhabited woods, a little wedge for the imagination: here’s where the house would stop, so this is what you would see. That is helpful; my mind’s eye can’t see much beyond this raw patch of skinny trees and leaf litter.

img_0002 At the edge of the property, close to where development has laid in the road we will someday be using to get home, my husband installs a birdhouse. It’s designed for bluebirds, and we locate it at the edge of where the trees begin; bluebirds prefer the open. He mounts it; we hear, one, two, three chickadees overhead. Hard to say if they are just being their nosy selves or eying the new real estate development.

We’ll see who moves in.

#Fast4Power

I’ve been thinking about food more than usual today. I started fasting as part of a movement called #Fast4Power. I would certainly not have done it alone. I joined because I was looking for a group of people who wanted to take a morally principled stand of resistance to the bad things happening in our country today. Uppermost in my own mind because of the timing is the inauguration next week as president of our country of a man who brings out the worst in people and who doesn’t really seem to have any principles. He’s a bully who does what we teach our children not to do.

But I don’t especially want to rant. I joined the fast because I am tired of ranting; it wears me out to do it and to listen to it. My Facebook feed is a rant factory. Paradoxically enough, however, I learned about this online and have joined a group of strangers, hoping to be in the company of people who are fasting instead of ranting.

Fasting is a physical and spiritual discipline. It’s a demand, but not mean. It seems to me to be like a form of active meditation, in which I become more aware of what’s going on with me: I am looking forward to the last of the Christmas fudge… The rules of the fast are only during daylight hours, like Muslims during Ramadan. What a snap, a thought to myself: it’s January, and the days are only eight hours. If it’s too hard, I can just stay in bed, right?

But it also gives me a little extra time – no breakfast, no lunch – to be reflective. Food is important to me; it provides pleasure as well as nutrition. Fasting is a little practice in saying “no, thank you.” In being aware of routine and autopilot, of the difference between need and want.

Joining a group of strangers for an online meeting was not as weird as I anticipated (who put the I in introvert? I did!). The group I saw was mixed and people spoke from different religious orientations, which is exactly what I had hoped for. A lot of the talk was about the group effort. I do feel more committed, knowing others are doing this.

I have a picture in my mind of Martin Luther King speaking and acting from a moral center. He is my hero for that reason, and I think he was effective for that reason, and I am not alone in that opinion. It gave him strength. If fasting with a group of strangers helps to nudge the movement for social justice or resistance just a little more toward a moral center, it’s not that hard. The fudge can wait. I can wait.

On first looking into the Quran

If I were one of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, this might be a rite of passage for me. But I am an American Quaker Christian studying the Quran at my seminary. I’ve been to mosques, read books, attended numerous iftars (fast-breaking dinners during the holy month of Ramadan) and interfaith dinners, heard panels and lectures, and learned from my Muslim friends. So I am using a sympathetic lens informed by more than two decades of exposure to Islam.

But I’ve always been a little frightened by the Quran with what I anticipated might be its judgments and commands and justifications. (Sacred texts have a reputation for that.) It stands there in my imagination like a very tall man I met many years ago from Kuwait. He was dressed in traditional garb, except for the wingtips on his feet. He looked down at me during our conversation about Islam and asked, “Now that you have seen the truth, why don’t you accept it?”

His question rings for me when we discuss at seminary the “truth claims” made by religions. When in the Gospel of John the Roman governor Pilate asks his prisoner Jesus “What is truth?” I have a certain amount of sympathy for that even though I know Pilate is supposed to be the bad guy in the story. I have taken biblical studies courses and have found myself able to at least dogpaddle in the deepest waters of centuries of interpretation. But the Quran, and its centuries of tradition and multiplicity of cultural heritages, comes at me like a flood of foreignness, surprising me with my own assumptions as well as its teachings.

The Quran is written in Arabic, a language foreign to me, and I know next to nothing about the history of 7th century Arabia. But familiar characters appear: Isa (Jesus), Musa (Moses), Yusuf (Joseph), Maryam (Mary, the mother of Jesus). Maryam is more developed in the Quran than in Christian Scripture; I want to enter the text through that inviting open door. Central themes are also familiar: justice (adl), mercy (rahma), beauty (jamal). What the believers ought to believe is threaded through the text, of course.studyquran

My beautiful text (The Study Quran, a beautifully designed edition) comes with footnotes, as all study versions of sacred texts do. They promise to be helpful when I come to the texts of terror, to use the phrase of biblical scholar Phyllis Trible. But she didn’t get that phrase from a study of the Quran; that comes courtesy of close reading of the Scripture that Jews and Christians share. (Significantly, the Quran offers an alternative merciful reading of Hagar.)

While knowing biblical texts helps, I am also leaning on the poet John Keats, who wrote memorably about his encounter with Chapman’s translation of Homer. Poetry is (or was?) my first love, and phrases from Keats have popped up for me mentally throughout my life. I may be a writer but I cannot fully explain the power of being struck “Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” I’ve spotted a new world that is all the horizon there is for so many, thrilling, intimidating, and vast, vast, inviting contemplation.

 

Melanie and Atticus

A number of animal residents of Richmond, Ind., have brightened my days when I am required to be here for residential study at the Earlham School of Religion. Two of them have been Melanie and Atticus, a pair of dogs whom I met a few years ago on their regular walk down the alley that adjoins my guesthouse. Their human companion is Neville (another story). Last night I met Neville walking only Atticus. Melanie is gone; Neville explained that she was 13 and had begun to experience health problems. Atticus is a robust 3-year-old, Labrador-sized (I don’t know his breed, since I am a cat person), whose disposition is visibly sweeter now that Melanie, the more sociable of the pair, is gone. Atticus nosed around patiently as Neville filled me in on the dogs.

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Though I rarely see these dogs, I was stricken by a pang of sadness. A dog’s, or any pet’s, death gives us humans an inkling of the big snooze that awaits us. I am picturing Melanie in the Elysian Fields, happily sniffing around, attracting friendly attention from many souls. The Gospel of John, which has my attention during my study here, contains the immortal image of the good shepherd. Dogs are used to help with shepherding. Some would say Melanie has been promoted to a happier neighborhood, where she doesn’t have to wait for Neville to walk her, I expect. For some sentient beings, heaven is a dog park. Here on earth, Atticus continues dog duties and doings, which include nosy visiting with strangers who may become friends.