Sunday, September 16, 2012

Going to Aachen

Looking Eastward - St. John''s Harbour

Parent: (to 19-year old son loading clothing into backpack.) So how do you plan to survive in Europe without money?
Son: (exasperated) I told you. I'll do odd jobs as I go. Why are you so worried about this?
Parent: You're wasting a year in which you could be studying for a solid career.
Son: That's just it. I don't know what career I want. I don't even know if I want a career. I need to find myself, find out who I am.
Parent: (dismissively) Why don't you just look on your driver's license. It's got your name and a picture.
Son: I can't talk to you about this. You just don't get it.
Parent: You're right; I don't get it!

            I just listened to Jian Ghomeshi interviewing Cheryl Strayed about her best seller, Wild. I haven't read it yet, but intend to; I have read reviews.
            Apparently, it's a “finding out who you are” journal by a woman who had just failed at marriage—and at pretty much everything by which we tend to judge success—and was suffering deep grief over the untimely death of her mother. Quite serendipitously, she hit upon some writing about the Pacific Crest Trail, a strenuous backpacking trail in the USA renowned as a wilderness experience without peer. She decided quickly that she needed to hike this trail. “She turned her back on a world of experiences that had left her bereft and began to walk, in solitude, to learn how to survive alone. It took her a novel and two decades to make sense of that decision (Kirkus Reviews).”
            Coincidentally, we recently saw the movie, The Way, in which Martin Sheen plays an American father who comes to France to claim the remains of a son who's died while walking The Way of St. James. He decides to do the walk for his son, scattering his ashes on the trail and interacting with a group of eccentric pilgrims, each seeking some kind of epiphany.
            It, too, is a walk of discovery, an exercise of separating oneself from the restrictions of the ordinary and allowing a completely unique experience to speak. (Those urbanites who walk in the country know there is no solitude quite like the solitary walk away from the chaos of the town.)
            As for the son planning to tramp Europe to discover who I am, I think I'd cut him plenty of slack. At the same time, I'd want to warn him that his journey shouldn't be viewed as a solution to a problem; he may have to search for who he is time and again.
            I say this from experience: the pilgrimage to discover who I am applies as much to my age group as it does to young adults. There's a chasm that develops from time to time; on one side is me; on the other side—and so far away that one needs binoculars—is some ideal of life where things fit, where there is a satisfying wholeness to what we are and do. The urge to pilgrimage responds to the need to find a bridge across the chasm.
            The conviction at old age that one has long and consistently missed the point and that it's too late to “retool” . . . must be the most devastating experience in life.
            There are many, of course, who will tell the young son that there is no need for a pilgrimage, that they have the answers he is seeking. Sometimes, these answer machines wear one or the other political or clerical collar and claim to have found their meaning in the adherence to a one size fits all philosophy or religion. Most often, though, the who am I question gets crassly subsumed under a career title: “I know what you are; you're a botanist!” Obituaries frequently define a person as “a loving mother, wife, grandmother and great-grandmother,” and many a loving wife, mother and grandmother of the past has placed the verse, “I have learned, in whatever state I am, therewith to be content” (Philippians 4:11) at the centre of her consciousness, thereby throttling the who am I search with the only answer in apparent reach.
            But getting back to the dialogue between father and son: it seems to be a debate between pilgrimage and submission. I'm with the son in this debate, and I'd urge all young people not to submit to prevailing pressure unless they have first done the pilgrimage chore and opted by choice to one position or another. It needn't be a thousand miles of walking the Pacific Coast Trail or The Way of St. James but it must be done in solitude, away from the strictures and the pressures of the prevailing environment, away from the thousand orders, suggestions, interruptions of daily life.
            Don't resign yourself to hobbling through life in shoes that belong to someone else.
            I call it, Going to Aachen. At one point during three years of stressful MCC administrative duties in Europe, I took three days, booked into a small hotel in Aachen where I sat in a thousand year-old cathedral for hours, watched Germans perambulate while I sat on park benches, visited the tomb of Charlemagne and generally let the environment suggest the agenda, or not.
            Three days isn’t enough; it takes longer than that to break free of endlessly recirculating worries and preoccupations.          Furthermore, a bustling city isn’t the logical site for letting go of stress.
            Nevertheless, let it live as a euphemism for the pilgrimages we need to take to find ourselves from time to time.
            Going to Aachen.

Aachen Cathedral


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