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Part of preparing for a pilgrimage is readying the mind and spirit. Everyone who plans this trip must wrestle with the prospect of not completing it. I have a vague notion that thirty years ago, when I was at my physically fittest and sliding down glaciers in the Rocky Mountains, I could set off to do strenuous activity without any kind of physical conditioning. Now I follow a conditioning schedule and worry that it’s not challenging enough.

I don’t know what to expect. It never really occurred to me that I had to work at fitness until I did have to work at it following heart surgery last summer. I had not experienced significant physical incapacity until I couldn’t lie down in bed without its hurting and napped most afternoons for six weeks. Am I fortunate to be that healthy? Lucky I never broke a bone and managed to avoid surgery for decades? Rehab gave my strength back to me, as well as a sense of what I took for granted.

What lessons will the Camino teach me about what I can or can’t do, what will require more effort or less? I was talking with an older woman yesterday who is physically frail now that she is in her 90s. She seemed frustrated; she told me how much she used to walk when she worked in the city and how active a gardener she had been. I thought I would be stronger, she said. FullSizeRender

That’s kind of what I’m expecting, or hoping, for the Camino: that I can manage the physical demands.But traveling light means not packing too many expectations and leaving room for ultra-lite plans B and C.

Limits are not roadblocks, however. They are not stop signs but they are givens. I will walk slower than pilgrims who are 20 years younger. I cannot anticipate limits but I will discover them just as I discover other things on the road.

There’s also this, from The Soul of a Pilgrim by Christine Valters Paintner: “A pilgrimage is an intentional journey into this experience of unknowing and discomfort for the sake of stripping away preconceived expectations.”

Getting ready for the Camino. 3. Physical.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with 20,000 steps. Doesn’t it?

Today was my first long conditioning walk: 10 miles at Waterfall Glen in southern DuPage County. It’s a circle – actually, more like a quadrilateral. Waterfall Glen features a waterfall, not a natural feature but one constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It is not named after that feature, however; it honors Seymour “Bud” Waterfall, an early president of the Forest Preserve District’s Board of Commissioners.

The main trail has its ups and downs, its prairies and woods and of course the main waterfall. The trees of the Bluff Savanna include white and black oaks and shagbark and bitternut hickories, some in the range of 200 years old, young when this area was first settled by white people. Kettle Woods is undergoing restoration that has removed most of the invasive understory of buckthorn and honeysuckle (grrrr…..). Now, as shrubs are just beginning to leaf out, the view through Kettle Woods is impressively clear.

Water was standing around in lots of low-lying areas after this week’s rains, making plenty of suitable spaces for spring peepers. We heard them but never saw a one; they are little ones, so that is not surprising. We also saw plenty of runners, dogs, families pushing strollers, and a few hikers wearing backpacks, as we were.

IMG_1370 We chatted with a man who told us he was conditioning for the John Muir Trail in late summer; I guessed he was half my husband’s age. When did we get old? I asked my husband later. Yesterday, he answered. Good to know.

I got tired about five minutes before our hike ended – reasonably good timing. The temperature rose from 50 degrees F to 60 degrees in the four hours it took us. Perfect, in other words. I started to think without dread about walking in Spain, which I do not expect to look like a suburban forest preserve. We have already begun chatting in a friendly way with fellow hikers; there will be much more of that, my husband observed. And the crunch of unpaved trail underfoot. What kind of birds, I wonder?

Getting ready for the Camino. 2. Logistics

It’s a lot easier to think about buying things for a spiritual pilgrimage than reflecting on the state of one’s soul. I had to get a backpack. My old one, with an aluminum external frame, weighed nearly half the amount I plan to carry. The new one, well.

Purchasing a new backpack is a little like buying a smart phone or anything else that is strongly influenced by technology. Each pack I have owned (this is my third) seems less like a cloth sack worn on the back and more like an engineered and specialized piece of equipment. This one is padded at the waistband and has so many adjustable straps hanging off it (they help to shift weight) that I needed a short orientation (which I hope I remember). I walked around REI with it and the weight seemed to fade, which is to say I felt comfortable. The trip itself is hard; no need to court discomfort, as it will come unsought.

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The paradox here is that the pilgrim must assent to hardship; that is why one undertakes such an arduous journey. This is not getting on board a cruise ship. But this is true of anything physically strenuous, which would include a whole range of sports and activities. It may not be a matter of making things harder, or easier, but simply of being prepared for the demands of the pilgrimage and the lessons of the journey.

The material sirens were certainly singing loudly yesterday as I tramped around REI test-walking two packs. I wanted one of those, one of those, and also one of those. I looked longingly at socks, an item I do not need. I am still considering replacing old and heavy raingear and thinking about what is needed to get the best sleep. I need those things more than $70 lightweight pants. I suppose logistics considerations are not wholly divorced from more spiritual questions about simplicity and detachment from desire.

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.

Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning: A Dialog

(Editorial note: My adult child and I are both active members of the Religious Society of Friends [Quakers]. A recent annual gathering of young adult Friends produced what Quakers call a minute: an official statement of a position. The minute has started circulating, prompting discussion. I have permission to post the statement to provide context for my thoughts in the essay that follows.)

A Concern Minute from Western Young Friends New Years Gathering

Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning” – Luke 12:35 (NIV)

Enduring the past year’s national rhetoric, and watching the spread of violence and hateful speech, we see that we are in times that demand more from the Religious Society for any hope of love and justice and peace. As the Western Young Friends’ New Year’s Gathering, we call on meetings of every size and kind to consider:

How can we prepare for the times ahead? How can we join hands with other communities of faith, honor our tradition and history of action, and find courage in the face of fear? For five days at the closing of each year, this Gathering draws young Friends from along the West Coast and beyond to bring a small Quaker community into being. We create the community in which we wish to live, filled with peace and vitality. This takes loving labor, but we know, experimentally, that it is possible to live with intention while responding quickly to challenges. Living in this possibility, we call on our elders, national Quaker organizations, and meetings at all levels to help us prepare ourselves to be the right tool in the hand of the Spirit for our times. Because of these Gathered experiences, we understand that the process and strength that comes from unity can take time. This creates in us a sense of urgency to begin the work now. We offer our energy, ideas, and commitment to change; we ask that the broader Quaker community, including all branches, offer its wisdom and resources. We see faithful individuals and small groups acting on Quaker testimonies, with support from their respective meetings. But we of this Gathering hunger for action that we have not seen taken recently by bodies of Friends, actions equal or greater to anything we have done before. We ask that meetings heed this call to communal action, and discern their right collective contribution towards national and worldwide work. Although recent history shows the long arc bending toward justice, there is no guarantee that such a path is inevitable. It requires the work of many hands. George Fox asked: “What canst thou say?” We ask: “What can we do?”

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My dear older child and friends,

You recently asked what you could do to respond to the climate in our country that has produced violence and hateful speech. Being good Quakers, you followed the Quaker process for discussing and reporting your concern. My Quaker meeting received what you wrote, and, being good Quakers, we discussed it.

We didn’t come up with an agenda, although we got as far as affirming that taking action promoted hope. The question has continued to nag me, and I felt utterly inadequate to answer it. Something has arisen in me, as we say in Quaker speak, and I’m not sure I like it. I’m not at all sure you will like it. But you know I have always talked about using your gifts, so I will use my gift of writing to think this through and explain it.

I think you and many others are right that the system we have in this country for setting national priorities is wrong. So change it. If the laws in this country are wrong, don’t disobey them. Change them. I’m edging up to saying don’t protest things, change them. But I think protest has a place, as a way of showing strength and solidarity. Changing things requires a lot more energy and follow-through than marching.

One of the things handed out at the Jan. 21 Women’s March (as I said, protest has a place) was a “what’s next” flyer. The first thing it said was “register to vote.” Only about a quarter of eligible American voters voted for the man now occupying the White House. The rest voted for someone else or just stayed home. Voter turnout was 56 percent, so lots of people stayed home. When Barack Obama won in 2008, turnout set a record at 61 percent. Little and undramatic things like showing up do count.

Next on the scale of undramatic things is changing who is in office right now. The landscape looks very dismal for progressives right now. One party runs everything right now at the national level, and completely controls 24 states. That makes uphill steep. One thing I learned was do-able during election seasons was showing up to make phone calls and to knock on doors to canvass. Knocking on doors, especially when the weather is nice, is one way to have conversations with people you don’t know and to hear their concerns. If you work for a candidate who wins, you play a part, however small, in that victory. I helped elect Harold Washington as the history-making first black mayor of Chicago in 1983.

A bigger next step is to run for public office yourself. Before Bernie Sanders ran for president, he was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, population 38,000 in 1980. Paul Soglin, who is now the mayor of Madison, Wis., again, was first elected mayor in 1973, after having started on the city’s council in 1968 as a graduate student. Barack Obama was 35 when he began his career as an Illinois State Senator in 1997.

You quoted Luke 12:35: “Be ready dressed for service and keep your lamps burning.” I am suggesting public service, which used to be a venerable term, and choice, before it was redefined for polemical purpose as “career politician.” Public service assumes that there is a public, a life and a space we share in this country that brings different people together to use such things as public schools and public transportation and public parks. There are many things the public needs; better public officials is only one of them.

I am sorry I have no advice that is especially dramatic. Some of you may be called to chain yourselves to various fences surrounding various bastions of power, but don’t feel bad if that is not your call. I happen to be studying medieval spirituality right now, and one thing the great saints and sages of the era emphasize is humility. This classical virtue is out of style today, but it’s been on my mind lately as a counterweight to public bombast and dishonesty. With so much work to be done, everybody has a part to play, whether flashy or humble. Keep your lamp trimmed and burning.

I hope you get more responses. This is mine for now.

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.