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?
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.
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.
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?