Tag Archives: metaphor

Oasis: An Observation from The Way of Saint James

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I almost passed it by.

When the offer came in January, I was too busy teaching college writing. Too busy mentoring a student group. Too busy reading for three book clubs. Too busy writing for a blog. Too busy marketing my memoir. Too busy caring for my family, cat, and home.

Maybe I could do it in the summer. More realistically, maybe in the fall.

But the director of the Mental Health Ministry persisted. She described the new program she envisioned at Seattle’s Saint James Cathedral and hoped I’d facilitate: a weekly creative writing workshop for people suffering from painful life events—the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the effects of abuse, disability, or disease. A workshop where participants could share their stories, order their thoughts, release repressed emotions, begin to heal their grief. A workshop starting February sixth.

To be honest, the prospect was intriguing. For years I’d longed to teach creative writing, something I’d earned a Masters in, something I’d done when I taught high school. How I’d loved teaching teens to write their stories. Doing so had been more priceless than rubies, more rousing than sunshine, more comfortable than fleece.

The high school students and I became close through our writing endeavors—reading, critiquing, affirming, revising until the stories sang. We became a community of colleagues, one that delighted and fulfilled me, one I’d not found a substitute for in the six years since I’d lost that job.

Maybe the cathedral writing group could fill the chasm in my heart that loss had cleaved. But at the time the opportunity was offered, I was overextended, my days packed with obligations from which I couldn’t extricate myself.

Maybe in the summer. Maybe in the fall. The timing simply wasn’t right to make my way to Saint James.

In fact, I’d just made my way to Saint James, although in a very different manner, one not involving teaching in Seattle, but instead perambulating Spain.

El Camino de Santiago—the Way of Saint James—is a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, where according to tradition, the apostle James the Greater is interred. Each year 200,000 pilgrims walk there on a variety of routes. The most travelled is 500 miles long and starts five miles from the Spanish border in the Pyrenean foothills of France, but some pilgrims walk from farther points—Paris, Rome, Munich—others from spots nearer Santiago—Burgos, León, Samos. Last September my husband and I joined them, trekking 200 miles from León.

Walking the Camino is a metaphor for living life. Head sheathed from blazing sun, blisters burning in boots, back bent under heavy pack, to succeed you have to strip possessions to essentials—a single change of clothes, a sleeping sheet and toothbrush, sunscreen and a pair of sturdy shoes—and you have to limit each day’s tasks to a necessary few—walking scores of miles, eating, washing underwear, bathing, sleeping, repacking your bag.

With little to distract you on the way but the crunching of your soles on gravel and the susurration of your breath, you synchronize with an inner rhythm you likely never realized you possessed. That rhythm hypnotizes you. You become so high on endorphins, fresh air, exhaustion, that your mind seems to detachfromyourbody,rise above your head, andhoverinthe ether, enabling you to observe yourself.

You learn that the mistakes you make on the Camino mirror those you make generally in life. And you begin to understand how to avoid them.

Or so it was for me. Take, for example, our first day, when we walked from León to Hospital de Órbigo, a distance of twenty-three miles, a trek of ten hours.

We began early in the morning on Puente Río Bernesga, a Roman bridge that spans a river running through the outskirts of León. After winding through the city suburbs, we came to the open countryside known as the Páramo Leonés. The topography of this region is one of the flattest in Spain, having been generated by alluvial deposits millions of years ago. Hot, dusty, desolate, these dry grasslands bereft of trees and breeze extend as far as you can see.

By the time we’d walked six hours on the trail, my skin was sunburned, my tongue was parched, my legs and back were collapsing. I wanted to quit the Camino. But suddenly we came upon a cornfield traversed by an irrigation channel that brimmed with brightly babbling water. It looked to be everything I needed, a perfect oasis edged by wildflowers, buttressed by a low stone wall, and shaded by a broad Holm oak.

“Mark,” I said to my husband. “I need to sit and rest.”

He looked at his watch. “It’s not time yet. Half-an-hour more. You can do it. It’s only two thirty.”

He was right. We’d scheduled our break for three o’clock. So I heaved my pack higher on my shoulders, grunted, and trudged on.

A mistake I often made in life.

Thirty minutes later, we took our break, the oasis far behind us. Squatting on a dusty roadside in the scathing sun, lizards darting over my boot-tips, flies buzzing round my head, I sipped some water from a plastic bottle and pictured the verdant spot we’d bypassed. I began to cry.

Which is why I decided to teach writing at Saint James beginning in the dead of winter. No, the timing wasn’t perfect. But if I’d waited I’d have missed the chance to do work that’s proved delightful. If I’d delayed I’d have missed becoming part of a group that’s growing close. If I’d passed it by I’d have missed an oasis that’s refreshed me for my other tasks.

Once a man met Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. Jesus said to him, “Come with me,” but the man said, “Let me first go bury my father.”

I hope the man avoided that mistake.

When you encounter an oasis on the way, stop and set down your pack.

 

 

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The Truth Told Slant

1879221_101_430Every winter I plunge into darkness.

As Seattle days shorten to eight hours with clouds covering most of them and the city readies for ten months of showers, my inner world becomes as bleak as the world outside. I burrow through three seasons like a shrew mole through the mud, tunneling deeper to cry, surfacing only to complain.

Born and raised in New York, I’ve not adjusted in twenty-seven years.

I suppose this isn’t surprising. All my grandparents were natives of Sicily, a place where even in winter daylight persists for ten hours with nary a cloud in the sky. The people of Palermo wake to sun 228 days per year.

When my grandparents immigrated to the US, they did well to settle in Manhattan, where the sun shines over Central Park 235 days. The Space Needle basks in sunrays only fifty-eight.

My doctor calls my melancholy SAD, a depression caused by lack of sunlight resulting in low serotonin. Those who experience it suffer desolation, petulance, anxiety and social strain.

Since evolution has optimized humans for equatorial light, SAD is common in northern latitudes and climates with cloudy skies. Dark-eyed people like me are genetically predisposed. Blue eyes take in more light. Seattle is simply insufferable for someone with my genes.

I can’t, though, blame my darkness solely on the weather. The past six years have been tough. Just as my children left for college, I lost my full-time job, and I can’t seem to find a new one, thirty years of résumé be damned.

Since I’ve desperately tried to fill the void with a grab bag of pursuits not always suited to me—part-time, volunteer and temp jobs, housework, classes here and there—I’m left feeling frantic, lonely, worthless, bored, and more so every year.

This winter SAD struck hard. I could barely rouse myself mornings, sometimes didn’t bother dressing, cried if my cat crossed my path, overate, skipped the gym, ignored my friends. Every evening I pleaded with my husband, “Get me out of here! There’s nothing for me in Seattle, nothing at all but rain.”

But, in truth, I knew my husband couldn’t leave. He’s worked decades to grow his business and it’s not portable.

Once, I met an American woman vacationing in Tuscany. She told me that although she was married, she always travelled solo and lived alone too. Her husband preferred Boston and she Cos Cob, so they had separate homes.

When I asked the woman if she was ever lonely, she shrugged, “Why should I be? I’m never by myself. My favorite companion is me.”

At this, I remember passing judgment. How selfish. What’s the point of such a marriage? I could never be like her.

Still, in the bleak of winter, I determined that I could. If my husband couldn’t leave Seattle, I’d move by myself.

The idea was so radical and bewildering that my mind could scarcely comprehend it. I’d buy a tiny house. A house in North Carolina, where there are 220 annual days of sun. I turned on my computer, began to search online, and after ten minutes on Trulia, there my dream home was.

2026 Sycamore.

This classic 1929 cottage was one-third the size of our Seattle house. See the lovely lemon shingles, the cheerful side veranda, the steep pitched roof and sun-drenched lawn.  Note the cozy rooms, the quaint divided windows, the sunbeams angling through the panes lighting the honey hardwood floors.

What relief this house would bring me, so tiny, simple, bright. I’d leave my tattered furnishings behind, discard my old books, not need very much. I’d spend my time reading Kindle on the porch or planting a garden in the sun—azaleas, honeysuckles, witch hazels, asters, bee balms, goldenrods.

The inside of my cottage would be an uncluttered haven just for me, the outside an ebullient sight for the community.

This would be the home of my heart. Thrice daily I ogled it on Trulia, walked around the block on Google Earth. How apt that it was located on Sycamore, for I was sick in love.

One rainy spring morning after dreaming of the house, I came across a poem by Emily Dickinson, as quoted in a Parker Palmer essay:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,

Success in circuit lies,

Too bright for our infirm delight

The truth’s superb surprise.

Palmer was pondering depression, a state he claims is caused when we disrespect the true self, the person God created us to be.

When we honor the true self, we choose pursuits that employ our inborn talents, resist pursuits that don’t and heed our natural limitations. Doing so brings us joy and enables us to serve those around us. Doing otherwise causes depression and burdens the community.

To honor the true self, we must listen to the promptings of its voice, which Palmer calls the inner teacher, others call the soul, and others the still, small voice of God. But this voice can often challenge the resistant ego, so to make acceptance easier, it sometimes tells the truth slant, using metaphor.

Could it be that the Carolina cottage was a trope composed by my true self? Not the dwelling I should buy, but the person I should be?

Rather than welcome less square footage, should I embrace my diminished role in the professional world? Instead of shedding tattered furnishings, should I drop unfulfilling work, like teaching basic grammar and dusting the church pews?

Rather than throw out old books, should I discard worn sob stories, like those about my SAD and unemployment? Instead of planting a new garden, should I cultivate pursuits I have and love, like writing and, yes, gardening, and caring for family and friends?

Who would I be if I did these things? Inside, an uncluttered, tranquil person; outside, ebullient, generous.

Perhaps the brilliant sunlight angling through the Carolina windows is simply the truth told slant by the voice of my true self.  Now it’s summer, and I am listening.