How Writing a Memoir Is Like a Pilgrimage: Part I, Overview
Even though the time clock is ticking on my memoir deadlines, I took time out this summer to travel. In July my husband and I traveled to Turkey and Greece, an amazing experience for both of us which I described in a previous post.
After returning from that trip and hosting our whole family for a weekend in July,
I got on another jet and flew to London, this time to meet two other friends whom I first got to know as we entered our first college presidencies in 1996. We met at the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents 16 years ago and discussed forming a subgroup of women presidents. Together with several other women, we formed a group that met all through the late ’90’s and continues to this day even though none of us serves in the original role that took us to Cambridge in 1996.
I went with these two friends to England July 18-30, 2012, ending the trip on my 64th birthday.
Janet was our leader for this trip. She had dreamed about a sabbatical that would deepen her understanding of what it means to be a twenty-first century pilgrim by retracing the steps of many medieval pilgrims and returning to the lands of her ancestors in the British Isles. As pastor of First Mennonite Church of Urbana, Illinois, Janet applied to the Lilly Endowment’s National Clergy Renewal program for support for this vision. She included Anne and me for part of her sabbatical in her application.
As trusted friends, the three of us have helped each other listen to the still small voice within. But we have never before had the luxury of spending so much time — nearly two weeks — both together and alone. When we talked on the phone (we live in three different states — Illinois, North Carolina, and Virginia) recently, we reflected on the amazing depth of this experience and the easy rhythms of conversation, planning, logistical support, and documentation.
We divided the labor of the trip according to our gifts and interests with very little discussion needed to ascertain what these were. And when something needed to be done, any one of us could, and did, step up.
Janet gave Anne and me a little booklet called Pilgrim’s Guide & Journal from the gift shop at Canterbury Cathedral, the final destination of our pilgrimage. This extraordinary little book is intended to serve as a guide to pilgrimage.
The word pilgrim itself derive from the Latin peregrinus (per, through + ager, field, land).
Our itinerary led us through many landscapes and cityscapes, many fields and streets. We used BritRail passes:
July 18-21, London (I stayed at the West End Doubletree); British Museum, Stanford’s Book Shoppe, Covent Garden, the National Portrait Gallery, Russell Square Park, Bloomsbury, the National Gallery
July 21-22 Salisbury (Cathedral and Stonehenge)
July 22-23 Oxford (stay at Somerville College, Cathedral, Botanic Gardens)
July 23-25 York (stay at Bar Convent, Cathedral, Museum,)
July 25-26 Norwich (stay at All Hallows Guest House next to St. Julian’s Church, mass next to Cell, Cathedral and labyrinth, Julian Museum)
July 26 (train to Bearsted, where we began our walking pilgrimage on the ancient Pilgrim’s Way path. Stayed at Black Horse Inn; left our luggage there and took only our backpacks and guide book and map.)
July 27 walked to Charing. Our B & B was doublebooked, so we were put up at the local Holiday Inn.
Saturday July 28 from Charing to Canterbury. An enchanted path.
Sunday July 29 Worship in Canterbury Cathedral. Explore the grounds and bookshop. Fish and chips dinner. wonderful breakfasts at Augustine’s B &B
Monday July 30 (my birthday) take train back to Bearsted to pick up luggage. Then return thru Victoria Station to Heathrow Airport. By 10 p.m. Home in Virginia.
Here is a group of slides in chronological order. It’s a pilgrimage in itself. Pour yourself a cup of tea, break open a madeleine, and walk through the land with the three women pilgrims.
According to the Pilgrim’s Guide booklet, pilgrimage involves six stages:
1. The Yearning
3. The Journey
4. The Arrival
5. The Sacred Experience
6. The Return
It will take months, possibly years, to fully comprehend the impact of one relatively short trip. In my next posts, however, I will attempt to answer a few of my own questions, using the six stages above. How is a pilgrimage different from a tour? What does it mean to be a pilgrim as a writer? As a human being? How do I nurture the feeling of deep gratitude and connection to God and all of life, so vibrant in England, continuing on a daily basis?
Readers, what would you like to know about this journey? What experience do you have with pilgrimage, both literal and metaphorical? What impact has walking on land, visiting holy places, meeting strangers, saying prayers, had on your writing? Do you have a pilgrim hero?
Shirley, I’d like to know more about the yearning that sent you on the pilgrimage. What were you searching for? What was your motivation?
I’ve never been on a literal pilgrimage, but I think of my spiritual journey as something of a pilgrimage. I think it has helped to lend more meaning to my process of writing. And writing is something of a spiritual practice of for me.
Oh, Tina, you asked two wonderful questions.
And I agree with you about the spiritual journey and writing. So many analogies.
You have inspired me to think about how to write the next post in this series. Thank you so much.
I’m leaving for Ireland next week. I’m in the preparation stage. Perfect timing to read this blog. Thanks, Shirley.
Wonderful, Darrelyn. I am so eager to learn from you what it’s like to do an international book tour (one of my own dreams). I will read everything you write about Ireland.
Readers, Darrelyn has just co-authored a beautiful memoir about Deirdre Gogarty, the first woman boxing champion from Ireland. Called to the Ring. Look it up! I reviewed it briefly here: http://shirleyshowalter.com/2012/08/27/adventures-with-ereaders-the-kindle-part-3/
I’ve not been able to travel the world, partly for the reasons that’re part of my Memoir Stories, (Will the Real God Please Stand Up: My First Eighty Years.)
Not that I wouldn’t have liked to go to Bali, Egypt, Switzerland, et al. “That said,”
My mind is non local, so I, too, have gone on many “energetic” trips. Great to hear about yours!!
LOVE your website!
Dorothy, I love the subtitle of your memoir. You sound like a fun non-local traveler. Glad you enjoyed the website. Come back again.
Looking forward to journeying with you Shirley.
My spiritual memoir is about a pilgrimage too. Looks like I’m in good company here with fellow sojourners! I have a few pilgrim heroes, but the first that come to mind are Brennan Manning and Madeleine L’Engle.
Debra, I enjoyed exploring your amazing website, and I hope others will click on your name and do the same. I too am a lover of Madeleine L’Engle’s work, and of her fierce, loving, presence on the three occasions when I had the privilege of meeting her at Goshen College. I don’t know Brennan Manning, however, I confess. I hope you return and tell us more! Thanks for the visit.
How exciting: I’m looking forward to reading of your pilgrimage. Recently I watched The Way with Martin Sheen, about the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage and recommend it.
I was just trying to remember the name of that film, Richard. Thanks! I heard other good things about it. Will recommend to my sister pilgrims also.
I wanted to thank you agaIin, Shirley, for sharing your thoughts on vaules reflected in memoirs in the interview you kindly granted on my blog:
Brennan Manning was a close friend of the subject of my memoir, Singing from Silence: Rich Mullins. (My friend Richard has passed on, hence the past tense).
He’s a great writer, and well worth looking including in our sojourn here from Eden to the New Jerusalem.
Thanks, Pam. You are doing heroic work as you recover from a stroke. All the best for a full recovery and for a great new blogging endeavor of doing interviews with memoir writers.
[…] by several experiences of pilgrimage this summer, I’m now in the final stage of the journey: the return, where the main focus is […]
What a wonderful pilgrimage this was Shirley, and of course so many of these places are very familiar to me! It’s so interesting isn’t it that you came over here to the UK and yet so much of life has been tied up with almost 20 years spent living and raising my children in California! My memoir is about a specific time between 1978 – 1981 against the backdrop of the culture as it was then in both the UK and America and the catastrophic events that took me across the sea and back again. I look forward to reading more of your wonderful blog now that I’ve found you through Tracy! Thank you so much for sending me the link to this post. It is lovely to meet you – Sherri 🙂
Your story sounds riveting, Sherri. I look forward to getting to know you better in the weeks ahead. Thanks so much for taking time to read about this journey. I like the image of memoir as pilgrimage too, don’t you?
[…] with my two “Pilgrim Sister” friends, I enjoyed the hospitality at The Bishop’s Hall at our annual meeting, this time in […]