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Walking to Nowhere

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

 

 

My friends have been on pilgrimage. They’ve walked the Camino and hiked the Himalayas and climbed Glastonbury Tor. They've made it to Dharamsala and Rishikesh. I haven’t done any of that. But I have been to the ocean in Maine. And I have walked back and forth between two points twenty feet apart for long periods. Those are my pilgrimages.

 

My family’s annual trip to Maine was my first taste of everything that makes life sweet and that still inspires me: longing, frustration, ordeal and beauty so great it stopped my heart and then filled it. First there was the intense anticipation for the trip that filled most of my summers— until the great day in August came. There was the agony of suspense as my parents appeared to dither and delay before we could set off, four kids stuffed into the backseat of a wood-panelled sedan. There were certain sacred stops along the way: trying out the echo at the Moore Dam, picnicking on soggy sandwiches in White Mountain National Park, seeing New Hampshire’s Old Man of the Mountain, crawling through traffic in North Conway. Until finally, finally, sweaty and limp, we were driving through the marsh, rolling down the windows to smell the sharp salt scent of the sea.

 

Then it was a blur until we were discharged from the car. I abandoned everyone to run down to the ocean, greeting it like a lost lover. I felt its immense, impersonal love for me, my infinite personal love for it. The waves roared and crashed and the beach opened up to me and it seemed like that was all I’d need and all I’d ever need.

 

During my time at the shore I was free to roam. I pursued solitary fantasies, imagined extending them when I came home. But knowing this free dreaming wouldn’t last made it bittersweet. Once back home, it felt as if I had left my best self back there on the sand. But at least it was there, I felt, waiting for me to return.

 

The ocean was too big for me to contain, too large to hold on to. While I stood by it I felt my emptiness and but no sense of lack. While I was away from it, I longed for it. There was pleasure in that rhythm. No matter how you grow up, there are spaces that don’t get filled. But we can have the longing.

 

My other pilgrimage—a practice of walking meditation—is different. It’s not about running to or running from. There is no magnetic destination to pull me on. Initially it’s quite boring, walking to and fro, paying attention only to my steps—and then it becomes a pain. It’s a journey through distraction, and when that is conquered, it’s a walk through old loneliness, those spaces that remain unfilled and the bullshit that grows up around them. Yet every now and then my steps slow and I am in that place where my emptiness is swallowed by a greater one. The ocean finds me.

 

The process can be bittersweet. I realize how much of my life is based in delusion, how much of my longing is for things that would do me no good, how fiercely I cling to my suffering. On a longer retreat I may find myself carrying a heavy load of guilt and regret as I pace. But surrounded by others on the same journey I know I am not alone. Like them, I walk to honour my longing, not seek its fulfillment. Like them, I am walking all the way to the shore: the one that bounds infinity, where I can turn and look back at my life with the waves at my back, their roar in my ear, telling me that there is more, there is space and time and mystery, and they and I are one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.
 
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