Everything starts with yearning. But that doesn’t mean the nature of the yearning is clear to the yearner.

Sometimes we go on pilgrimage to find out what we yearn for.

Sometimes a book, especially a memoir, grabs us by the hand and takes us on the same journey.

In my case, I went on a literal pilgrimage along the Pilgrim’s Way in England in hopes of locating the deepest yearning in the book I’m writing.

Did I find it?

Feather, snail shell, piece of chalk stone.

I can tell you what didn’t happen better than what did.

I didn’t hear a voice from heaven, or even a voice from behind the curtain as in The Wizard of Oz. What I heard came from inside as I felt the vibrations of earth under my feet, sky or cathedral above, and the weight of the pack on my back. I looked for small signs along the way. I selected three: a white feather, a snail shell, and a piece of English chalk stone to bring back home with me.

A White Feather

The feather in this picture actually came from another pilgrimage experience, my time at Cedar Springs, where I picked up a swan feather. Bird feathers have always fascinated me, especially after poet Julia Kasdorf used bird imagery to describe the first woman president of Goshen College, me, in this commissioned poem found in a blog post here.

First Bird
by Julia Kasdorf

The first bird that sings
sings for all birds, even

when she stands for nothing
but herself, a dun-colored finch

on a dogwood branch.
No telling what a bird knows,

if this seems the first time
light glowed on the horizon,

or if she thinks her beak
alone has pierced the night.

We know nothing can be whole
that hasn’t been torn.

There is no holy thing
that hasn’t been betrayed,

the way notes, once forced
into her tiny throat,

come out this dawn as song.


My desire to tell my childhood story in language that sings brings me back to birds and to feathers. I tucked a feather from the Pilgrim’s Way into my coat pocket. I thought of “First Bird,” the name I took for myself on a vision quest in the late 1990’s when a hawk came to me from the sky.

When I got home, I couldn’t find my white feather in my pocket any more. I’m now using the swan feather pictured above to indicate that I am both a “first bird” and a “torn” bird and that the tearing is what produces the song.

Pilgrimage takes us out into the landscape where we can hear and see the birds which call out our name. Bird, meadow, song. All these called to me from the deep places under the landscape.

From the water sculpture in the Salisbury Cathedral


The Snail Shell

Most pilgrims carry scallop shells, like the ones medieval pilgrims walking the 500-mile Camino de Santiago path through France and Spain used to identify themselves. My friend Janet carried a scallop shell around her neck that her parishioners gave her. I picked up the snail shell in the photo along the path close to Charing. Its spiral reminds me that all paths lead to God when we truly seek God and to the unveiling of mysteries that elude us here on earth. It connects me, too, with the idea of resurrection and transformation that I seek to experience and describe in my memoir.

The Piece of Chalk

What could be more reflective of a life in school, as mine has been, than a piece of chalk?

I had seen the chalk cliffs of Dover from the sea many years ago. I didn’t know that much of southeastern England is covered in chalk rock. It was a surprise, and on pilgrimage, surprises turn out to be gifts.

This piece of chalk takes me back to the child’s instrument for writing, chalk. It symbolizes that I was called to write and to teach many, many years ago.

This is the way I was knit together in my mother’s womb. Everything I yearn for matters most only when it helps others learn also. Chalk demonstrates that even the stones can sing out.

Three Signs into One Insight

A memoir that sings comes from the rhythm of the heart beat as the subject walks and walks and walks over the land. Like a bird, it soars and searches for a better ending to the story. Like a shell, it circles around its subject and protects its center. Like a piece of chalk, it turns one life into lessons for others and other lives into a larger lesson plan.

I can be true to the facts of my life without being limited by them.

There, it’s in one sentence now.

Help me understand what I just said. Do you agree, disagree?  

What connection do you make to your own pilgrimage, either as a person or a writer?



Shirley Showalter


  1. Tina Barbour on September 24, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    I agree with you–the memoir sings, soars, circles and turns.

    This is so beautifully written, Shirley, it makes me linger and reread.I understand pilgrimage–your pilgrimage and the whole concept of pilgrimage–so much better now. I love the images you are using to, in part, illustrate your journey.

    This inspires me to look at my own yearning for a memoir. Thank you for sharing this.

    • shirleyhs on September 25, 2012 at 11:27 am

      Thanks, Tina, for choosing the verbs that spoke to you. Verbs do so much of the work of writing. When they are strong, the rest of the house can almost float on them.

      So glad you are inspired to keep searching for ways to describe your own yearning. Doing so takes us down, down to the deepest wells of our being.

  2. Joan on September 25, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Shirley, This writing is so beautiful. It is “everyman’s” quest to find the spirit within. It does not need to make sense even to the pilgrim. It is simply part and parcel of the pilgim’s journey and not to be questioned. The feather, the shell, and the chalk stone, all represent moments of enlightenment, a bonding with spirit.


    • shirleyhs on September 25, 2012 at 1:13 pm

      Yes, Joan, the desire is universal, and it doesn’t have to be conscious in order to lead to more enlightenment. A helpful observation. Thank you!

  3. Kathleen Pooler on September 25, 2012 at 11:00 am

    Shirley, This is so graceful. It reminds me that memoir writing & life are a spiritual journey. The only thing we have to do is be open to what is around us everyday- the simple moments that count. Thank you for this eloquent reminder of the gifts that await us each day. Beautiful!

    • shirleyhs on September 25, 2012 at 1:15 pm

      Kathy, thanks for these kind words. We writers use the metaphors of journey and pilgrimage all the time, and it especially helps us relate our individual stories to archetypal ones like Pilgrim’s Progress.

      Hope you get some literal pilgrimage time, too, as you continue your memoir. Powerful.

  4. Marilyn Slagel on September 25, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    Shirley, I found this while reeding Tweets just now. You are so eloquent in your writing. I look forward to reading more…

    • shirleyhs on September 26, 2012 at 1:57 pm

      Thanks, Marilyn. It’s good to know that you are finding Twitter a good way to connect. Thanks for the gracious comment.

  5. Henry Hershey on September 25, 2012 at 8:33 pm


    I appreciate “First Bird” by Julia Kasdorf,a beautiful poem. However, in some cases, I can’t help myself from taking a poke at my older sister.

    Until today’s research, I would have bet that females in the bird world generally don’t sing, (Turns out that I am wrong.) Two sources of my erroneous assumption: Chicken behavior on the farm, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    You may recall that our roosters crowed, but the hens merely clucked. From L I Wilder’s “Farmer Boy”, Royal teased his sister: “Whistling Girls and crowing hens always come to some bad ends”.

    “Yes. Both male and female birds sing. The only difference is in purpose of song. Female birds sing for the purpose of singing and to attract males. Male birds sing for the purpose of protecting territory and attracting female mates.” (internet search)

    So, perhaps mother’s prayer at inauguration, wasn’t so far off the mark, finding ones voice, finding a mate.

    Bird mating behavior aside, I can imagine that a pilgrimage may well be a journey to find one’s voice. I too am awaiting the results in your memoir.


    • shirleyhs on September 26, 2012 at 11:08 am

      My dear brother has shown up here! We’re still competing over whether boys are better or girls are better. 🙂

      We also used to compete on blue eyes v. brown eyes, so maybe the level of completion is rising!

      So glad to have your comment. Yes. Mother’s been right about a lot of things.

      I’ll leave you with Elizabeth Mitchell’s words:”The littlest birds song the prettiest songs.” She’s Owen’s favorite poet/musician.

  6. Debra on September 25, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    “…We know nothing can be whole
    that hasn’t been torn.
    There is no holy thing
    that hasn’t been betrayed…”

    Don’t we though? What a poem.

    What depth of meaning your symbols hold: the feather, the shell, the chalk.

    • shirleyhs on September 26, 2012 at 11:17 am

      Debra, I’m glad you love the poem also. Julia Kasdorf has often inspired me. I’ve quoted her here before.

      Many joys on your own journey!

  7. Richard Gilbert on September 27, 2012 at 7:10 am

    Well sung, Shirley. The best memoirs have in them discovery, which comes from seeing what happened to your pilgrimage, or other grand intentions, when it met real life.

  8. shirleyhs on September 27, 2012 at 8:20 am

    Thanks, Richard. You’ve given me a good idea for my final pilgrimage post! Before the boon is given — surprise encounters.

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