Category Archives: Get Your Happy Here

The Gift.

For once the morning was clear and it was even warm enough to ditch my parka and rain jacket as I walked through a maze of narrow streets on my way to the 68th temple on the Shikoku trail. The temple was all but empty this early and a drowsy cat seized the opportunity to laze on the moss-covered steps leading up to the bell tower. Nearby, a cherry tree was showering the ground with blush petals. At the Main Hall, two women in their fifties were halfway through the Heart Sutra. I like reciting the verses simultaneously with other pilgrims, so I stood next to them and read the English version to myself. Even though they don’t match up timing wise, I still feel a sense of unity as the rhythmic Japanese syllables form a hypnotic background for my internal English drawl.

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The two women moved to the Daishi Hall while I was still on the Kigan-mon prayer, asking for harmony and happiness for all.  By the time I was ready to join them again, there were two other, younger women in front of the Daishi Hall, though not so wrapped up in spiritual training. They were taking photos of each other while behind them the two pilgrims were bowed over in prayer. One of the girls made an exaggerated pose and a peace sign and I wanted to hurt her for it. I am neither a pious person, nor one who has gone a day without breaking some rule of conduct, but I decided to be offended, both, because I felt they were intruding into the private space of the two pilgrims and because I now had to wait for them to be done taking photos so that I could lose myself in the words, and not in contemplation over how my butt looked on their iPhones.

Now fuming, I sat down on a bench, making sure my crossed arms and death stare conveyed my impatience and disapproval. At the same time, the other Masha, the one who set out walking around the world, sacrificing four toenails in the process all in the quest of greater love and compassion was gently whispering (she never raises her voice, not even at herself) “What are you doing? I thought we talked about this.”

She was right. We had agreed to stop judging people a while back. We also agreed to stop acting entitled. Or bitchy. This was a public space, where anyone could and should take as many pictures as they like and those of us who are bothered by it need to suck it up.

While being gently chastised by my higher self, I began to feel ashamed and as all four women walked away, I made a promise that would last no more than five minutes to send only love and understanding in the direction of the two budding photographers. The next temple was only a short climb of stairs away and when I got there for a second I thought I had taken a very short trip back in time— there were the two pilgrims in prayer, and in front of them the two women snapping photos of themselves. Equally Groundhog Day-esque was my reaction. Again, I sat down on a bench, proudly wearing my discontent on my face, even as I began reading the sutras under my breath. “ With the deepest respect for the Buddha’s fundamental vow of universal compassion, I will establish myself in the pure conviction that we are all one, and not apart.” Except for those girls, they get blacklisted. “As a disciple of Buddha, until the end of all future time I will not have thoughts of ill will.” Totally, but with the exception of the two newest additions to the aforementioned list.  “ With my whole heart, I offer this prayer. May all people be happy and may every being in the world be benefitted equally.” Damn it. I had to admit defeat. I was being a jerk in the house that Buddha built with all of his compassionate wisdom. And now I was using bad language as well.

In my annoyance, I had rushed through my prayers, finishing just ahead of the other women. I was in front of them as the three of us walked over to the office to get our pilgrim notebooks stamped. And then I did something really tiny, something that probably went unnoticed by everyone but me—I paused and pretended to look something up in my guide thereby letting the two other pilgrims be first in line to get their stamps. It was a pinprick of a gesture, but it was the first thing I thought of to try and make amends for my foulness and tip the scales of the morning back to happy.

Once they finished taking care of pilgrim business, the women came up to me, smiling, oblivious of the battle that had raged mere inches from them not ten minutes before, and asked me where I was from, expressed their disbelief and their awe that I was doing the whole circuit alone and on foot and then one of them reached out her hand, holding a friendship bracelet, with pink knots in the thread creating a pattern of hearts. “Ossetai” she said, gift. I reached into my bag and found one of the small strips of paper that pilgrims drop into boxes with wishes written on the back and hand out to anyone who has offered you an ossetai. I handed her the white slip, bowing my head slightly.  In return both women reached into their bags for their own wish-granting bits of paper. Then we took a selfie. And then one more with me wearing one of the women’s conical henro hats. Before we said goodbye, I received yet another gift– a bright red scallop shaped charm with a green bell. And just like that, my hands full of unwarranted presents, my lukewarm heart melted.

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It’s possible that had I not let the women go ahead of me things would have turned out exactly the same, but it’s much more likely that had I taken my turn at the stamp office, fair and square, I would have kept the dissatisfied look on my face and left before either woman had a chance to so much as breathe in my direction.

I have seen this a million times—taking one baby step beyond the standard baseline of human decency that is expected of me creates a force of goodness that is inequitable to the energy I’ve exerted. I believe that making the choice to extend that tiny bit of kindness paved the way for everything that came after, and I don’t just mean the warm exchange I had with the two pilgrims. Their giddy gift giving rippled out through out the day. It stayed with me as I sailed past the two girls with the camera in the parking lot, still snapping away. It made me want to sit down on a grassy lawn on a riverbank to watch baby ducks and a puppy in a pink striped sweater for no other reason than that it brought me joy. I hold the feeling of gratitude  brought on by the ossetai responsible for the little ceramic pilgrim a woman gave me on the street, the green tea offered at the next temple and the two bean paste filled mochi that another pilgrim bought for me.

In the name of full transparency, I have to admit that the feeling almost wore off by the end of the day as hotel after hotel told me they were full. I was sitting on a swing, in the dark and in the rain eating the mochi I had been saving for when I’d find myself in warm room. The small inn that the swing belonged to looked brand new and warm. Though I rang the bell repeatedly, no one came. Looking at the amount of worn, muddy boots gathered at the entrance, I figured that they were full and so were ignoring any calls this late at night. While my mouth was busy with the sugary chewy sweets, and my heart was sinking as my brain tried to think of a place to safely pitch my tent, some other part that I am not entirely sure belonged to me was busy convincing me that a day like this could only end well.

I sat glued to the swing for almost twenty minutes, but then as I am sure you’ve already guessed, the front door of the inn swung open. Two minutes later, as my host was leading me up the stairs to a clean, cozy room, he told me that it was the last bed he had available. “You’re very lucky,” he added. Don’t I know it.

 

Pilgrimage to Konya

I stepped off the bus in Konya, one of the most conservative cities in Turkey with my pants falling down. I had bought them the night before in a rush and without trying them on. When I realized, first to my delight and then to my horror that I had underestimated how much weight I’d lost in four months of walking, I was already late for my date with a dead Persian poet in small city in Anatolia.

Fighting a losing battle to keep my butt covered up, I walked from the bus station to my hotel and gave myself a silent talking to. “Why can’t you just get off a bus and walk to a hotel like a normal person? Why does everything in your life have to be an audition for a comedy sketch?” Then I thought about the joy my friends will feel when I tell them this story, a joy similar to what they felt when I told them that I showed up to my job at one of the world’s top fashion magazines wearing one brown and one black boot. My self-shaming took a surprising turn as I began to see what a gift it is that in my life, even the most ordinary act such as getting dressed in the morning, turns into a story worth telling.  Thanks to my inability to just wake up and start my day “like a normal person,” an otherwise unmemorable walk down a wet, grey street in Turkey was now etched in my mind, much like the occasionally visible lace of my underwear is now permanently etched in the memory of the pious citizens of the town where Rumi created his magnificent poetry. I think the Sufi mystic would have been proud of my journey from self-chastising to self-awareness.

“Who could be so lucky? Who comes to a lake for water and sees the reflection of the moon.” 

Konya is said to have been quite a sight during the 13th century, when Rumi lived here, though now his legacy is all that colors an otherwise monotonous landscape of boxy apartment buildings, souvenir shops and expressionless hotels. Luckily, I had ignored the accommodation recommendations of well-meaning travelers and instead followed my heart to a small two-story house with an ornate gate and a garden where an eager black cat let me stroke its soft fur, even as rain fell on us both.

While I waited for my room to be ready, I wandered around the garden photographing dried up sunflowers, the scroll-like curled petals of zinnias and the velvet fringe of marigolds with no real aim except to acknowledge and capture the moment in the same way a much less poetic struggle to hold on to my pants had captured my arrival in Konya.

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In the days leading up to my pilgrimage I was constantly drawn to flowers. I bought a pink scarf tipped with red, blue and peach blooms, a top with swirls and pale carnations and a notebook with a reproduction of Mignon’s painted tulips, bearded irises and red currants. I even packed a bottle of rose oil into my backpack before leaving. Flowers have been an important part of my life ever since I got my first job as a florist at eighteen. They have always been my escape. While writing is more risky and demanding because there is more of me at stake, flowers are my creative refuge, a world where I wholeheartedly embrace myself as an artist, without judgment and let myself play without any policing. They connect me with my past as the appearance of tiny clusters of grape hyacinths remind me of the time I fell in love early one spring. They also put me squarely in the present, as I smell the first paperwhite narcissus flower in November. Flowers remind me of both how fragile and prone to withering life is and how confidently and brilliantly it always comes back.

“The words that make the rose bloom were also said to me.
The instructions whispered to the jasmine.
And whatever was said to the sugarcane to make it sweet.
And to the pomegranate flowers to make them blush. 
The same thing is being said to me.” 

Between Gwyneth Paltrow quoting him on Oprah and his poetry, which can be playfully naughty and includes references to sex outside of marriage, it’s easy to forget that Mevlâna as he is known in Turkey was a dedicated Muslim, given the name Muhammad at birth and who exalted the Quran in many of his poems.  I can’t think of any other man whose words have burrowed into the hearts of Hollywood actresses, lovesick teenagers, veiled women and literary college students alike. Everyone loves Rumi—the Pope, atheists, intellectuals, and even a very smart and sweet woman I met in the hotel who believes we come from a different planet entirely.

“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river,each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged” 

In the kitchen of the hotel a tall, pencil-straight, grey-haired woman, who was clearly a guest was grating cooked quince.

“What are you making?”

“I’m trying to make my grandmother’s dessert, but I think I’m failing.”

Having been given the rare gift of watching someone other than me crash and burn, I decided to stick around and get to know this lady. Her name was Muriel and she was a French ex-pat living in England who adored the owners of the hotel and has known them for years, which explained her taking command of the kitchen.  She is an expert on Rumi, lecturing and writing about the Sufi mystic and his poetry.

“I wrote a book called ‘Rumi’s Daughter,’ maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s been translated into nine languages.”

I wanted to say “ But can you do this!” and do a back flip off the counter except I remembered that I don’t know how and instead offered to take over the grating for a bit. Despite our efforts, the quince did not resemble the smooth paste Muriel remembered from her childhood so we called it quits and went to the tomb of the teacher we had traveled here to see.

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When Rumi’s father died in 1231 the Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad offered his rose garden as place to bury the well-respected mystic and scholar. Forty years later, after celebrating his “wedding night” as he had asked his death be referred to, Rumi was laid to rest in the same place. Though the rose garden is still there, it blooms in the shadow of a marble and tile complex that has developed around father and son over the centuries.  At first, a sea green, rippled conical tower was built over the two graves. Then the Mevlevī Sufi, an order of Rumi’s followers built a Dervish Lodge where the members of the order lived, studied and prayed. Suleiman the Magnificent built an adjacent mosque in the 16th century and eventually more than forty people, including members of Rumi’s family and prominent dervishes (followers) of the Order were buried in the Mausoleum.

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Muriel and I were approaching the Mevlâna Museum when we heard the first notes of a nearby mosque’s call to prayer. A second muezzin began just behind the first, and then a third, a fourth and on and on until the echoing voices were impossible to separate from each other and the words of praise to Allah became an indiscernible, passionate, pulsating cry that overtook the sound of traffic, tourists and even the endless stream of my thoughts. What is it about this Sufi man that gathers everything that’s magic around him and the nearer you get to him the more magic your own life becomes? Or maybe it’s that he inspires you to see the magic that’s already there?

“You wander from room to room
Hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck.” 

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The quiet space for reflection that I expected his grave to be was crowded with a stampede of people who were probably seeking the same solitude. While a recording of a mournful ney melody played on a loop over the loudspeaker, Japanese tourists took photos, despite the protests of the guards. A clean-shaven man in a suit prayed quietly next to them and an older Turkish woman turned away her tear-stained face when I accidentally caught her eye.  Muriel sat on her heels in a corner with her eyes closed, meditating. Rumi’s tomb shrouded in black and gold was the only grave I’ve ever been to where I felt like the person was actually still there, hovering and observing. I wonder what he would think of all this, given that he had wanted to be buried under an open sky. I wonder how he’d feel about a million people coming to see him every year.

“Either give me more wine or leave me alone.” 

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When we came out of the mausoleum, the sky was bruised with rain clouds except for one patch, through which a ray of light reached out towards the Mevlâna Museum, singling out the Master as the lucky recipient of its warmth. Despite the cold and the promise of rain, Muriel and I strolled to the Alaeddin Mosque, an ancient place surrounded by a park with views out into the plains beyond the city line. Rumi had attended prayers here, in what I imagine was then a majestic mosque, but was now dusty and worn. In the courtyard we found the grave of the same Sultan who had offered up a patch of his rose garden centuries ago to Rumi’s father. We wandered among the cream and orange dahlias and blue irises  just outside and talked about Rumi.

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“I’ve been thinking a lot about Rumi’s poem that begins ‘Come, come, whoever you are,” I started.

“You know there’s a good chance that it’s not actually Rumi’s poem?” Muriel stopped me.

“Don’t tell me that, it’s one of my favorites!”

“There is a theory that it was written later,” said the Rumi scholar.

“But it’s even in the Rumi book that I have,” I pleaded.

“Who is the translator?”

“Coleman Barks”

“You know that he doesn’t actually translate the books, since he doesn’t speak Persian?”  Seeing the shock on my face, she quickly added “But he’s not without his purpose, he adds some value to the translations, some interpretation.”

“My favorite poem of my favorite poet was not written by him and my favorite Rumi translator didn’t actually translate Rumi. Fantastic.”

“But that’s the essence of Rumi—he confuses you, he makes you lose yourself so then you find your own way back. You have to decide for yourself.”

I understood what Muriel meant.  Rumi isn’t the bones and dust lying below a slate of marble. Rumi isn’t the warm, fleshy thing those bones used to cling to.  Rumi is the inspiration, the love and the poetry that I feel when I read the words. Who wrote and who translated them has no importance.

“In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you,
but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.” 

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In fact, Rumi might never have become Rumi,  the man that draws more than a million people to a small town in Turkey were it not for a fateful meeting with a basket weaver in 1244. Shams Tabrīzī had been traveling from town to town hoping to meet his spiritual equal, the one person who could understand him fully and his search ended here, in Konya. The two became the closest of friends and that friendship opened up some new divine place in both of them. Though Shams was almost thirty years older than Rumi, it seems their relationship was more teacher and teacher than teacher and student.

Hurry and get out of this wind, for the weather is bad.
And when you’ve left this storm, you will come to a fountain;
You’ll find a Friend there who will always nourish your soul.
And with your soul always green, you’ll grow into a tall tree”

Rumi’s disciples and his sons, jealous and distrustful became weary of Shams and his influence over Rumi. Legend has it, that one night while the two friends sat in Rumi’s home someone knocked on the door and called out for Shams. Shams went to see who it was, disappearing out of view. Rumi heard his friend cry out and ran to the door but found only a drop of blood in the snow. Or so one story goes. Shams was never heard from again and Rumi’s grief was endless. He wrote volumes of poetry dedicated to his Shams. He even said that the poetry was not his, but his friend working through him.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

On the way back to our hotel, Muriel pointed down a narrow street filled with souvenir shops and jewelry stores, “There is a mosque over there that’s supposed to be where Shams is buried, but I don’t think so.” Officially his tomb is in Khoy, Iran. There is another one in Pakistan. The legend of Shams has spread far and wide, it seems.

That night I dreamt that a sorcerer kept sending wild animals to attack me. Every time I’d fight one off, another one would appear. Exhausted and angry I pleaded with the sorcerer “Why are you doing this to me? Why do you hate me?”

“Don’t you know that I am doing it because I love you most? I am sacrificing these animals so that you can practice fighting. That way, when you have to face the biggest battle of your life you will be sure to win.”

Given how close the hotel was to Rumi’s grave, I am inclined to think that the mystic’s ghost is predisposed to sleepwalking and making poetry of people’s dreams.

The next morning while I loaded up my plate with cheese and olives and cucumber slices, I told the owner of the hotel about my dream.

“What were the animals you were fighting off?” he asked.

“I think they were wild boars.”

“Hmm,” he examined me for a second and walked away.

Alarmed, I looked up the symbolic meaning of boars.  I found that they could mean battle (usually to the death), needing to face a conflict head on and the odd man out—really passionate sex. I am hoping that the dream was not a prophecy of a life spent killing every opportunity for great sex.  Considering that I am on a quest, making my way around the world in search of answers, looking my fears squarely in their serpent-like faces, it’s easy for me to believe that there are more challenges ahead and with them more answers and more beauty. That the battles of today are preparing me for those of tomorrow seems logical, but who is this magician who is training me to fight? Who cares! Did you not hear the part where he said he loved me most? Except for that particular bit that most probably came from my egomaniacal subconscious, I honestly think  the voice of the magician is the same voice that told me to go walking around the world and the same one that told me to not leave the house for three days and write this all down.

“Learn the alchemy true human beings know.
The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given the door will open.”

On the whole spectrum of my life, there are pockets of time that I fall into once in a while that are filled with such perfectly orchestrated magic, that I begin to think I’ve fallen off the spectrum completely. If you haven’t guessed it, this trip to Konya was one of them.

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Before getting on a bus again I went back to the Mevlâna to say goodbye. It was sunny now and I sat in the rose garden with a volume of poetry translated by someone who doesn’t speak the language it was was written in and read my favorite words from the poet who probably didn’t write them.

“Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again , come , come.”

And he was right—it didn’t matter.

 

 

 

 

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The Space Between.

The last two weeks in Tanzania were packed to full capacity with firsts. It was my first time in Africa and the Southern Hemisphere, the first time I’d seen my husband in four months, I had my first taste of fragrant, fleshy custard apple fruit and several first hours of predawn, head-splitting breaths above 5200 meters on Mount Kilimanjaro. It was my first time seeing giraffes, hippos, and lions roaming (or most often napping) in the wild. It was the first time I got so close to an elephant I could see a coating of dust on his long eyelashes. It was also my first time seeing an elephant dry humping a fallen tree, but I’m saving that story for later, when I’ve had time to sort through the jumble of intense, bright memories of Tanzania that currently resemble the mental artwork of a madwoman.

In the meantime, I am back in Istanbul. With the rush of the last pilgrimage in Africa behind me and the next pilgrimage in India hidden away behind a fog of uncertainty in the form of a delayed visa application, I am suspended mid-quest, with too much time to think and doubt and reconsider.

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A few years ago while backpacking in Laos I had the misfortune of being talked into tubing in Vang Vieng by my new husband. The ritual, which has since been banned was less about tubing down the slowly moving river and more about drinking shots of local whiskey, spray painting pink penis stencils on fellow wasted Westerners, and then trying to have sex with them before you were too drunk to remember the approxiamate location of your genitals.  In what I assume was an attempt to exact revenge on the Western locusts that descended on their village, the locals had built a flying trapeze, a waterslide and a zipline using little more than kitchen string and leftover plywood from a birdhouse project. The water slide was closed when we arrived because a Swedish backpacker had slid headfirst into a rock and killed himself just four days before.This was not the first or even the second time this happened and though the accidental deaths were a total bummer, the party was otherwise totally awesome so the tubing continued.

I found the whole thing unsettling, but was also tired of feeling like there was something wrong with me because I  felt mortified rather than ecstatic to be partaking in this Asian Spring Break. In an effort to  prove that I was as carefree and brimming with stupidity as everyone there I climbed to the rickety trapeze ladder. I had watched as dozens successfully jumped off the edge,  turning into screeching human pendulums swinging back and forth with jungle-covered limestone cliffs providing a green screen for their acrobatics before falling two stories into the water below.  If they could do it, why couldn’t I? I walked to the edge of the platform and stepped off, holding on to the bar as tightly as I could, though I forgot to straighten my arms and as they jerked straight I let go and fell sideways into the shallow part of the river, injuring my pride more than anything else.

I am a great leap taker. I cartwheel into the unknown wearing a blindfold and juggling bananas, much like I did on that rickety trapeze in Laos. I throw myself into a new adventure in academics or travel or relationships with certainty and enthusiasm and I am fearless when I start.

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After finishing my Freshman years with a 3.98 GPA, I received an invitation to join the Honors program. The program would allow me to create my own course of study, merging whatever disciplines my heart desired into one unique Major. I would be the Frankenstein of my academic monster, merging Journalism, Philosophy, Russian Studies and anything else I wanted.  I could mesh Music Theory and Astronomy and spend my college career investigating the existence of celestial melodies. All I had to do was turn in a graded  essay from the previous semesters, which was fantastic news for me as I had many such essays including one with an impressive A+ and the words “thank you” written on the front page.

I am an expert beginner, but just when all I have to do is give myself over to the inertia of what I’ve started, I pause. I let go of the trapeze bar and I fall into the space between wanting the thing and having it. I never turned in the essay and as a result I never joined the Honors program.

I have ended up in the space between so often that I recognize the signs of an upcoming slip, which is why I was alarmed when I woke up in Istanbul two days ago with the symptoms of an impending fall crushing my ribcage, feeling restless and uncertain.

There are two of me fighting for the controls. One, the great leap taker and dreamer is just warming up. She wants to give every second of the next eight months her undivided attention and all of her energy, she wants to write a bestselling book and to start revolution in travel, to get a movie deal and win an Oscar for the script she wrote, no for Best Actress, no for the music score composed entirely of the melodies of stars, she dreams of grandeur, of saving the world, of saving puppies from runaway horse carriages and runaway carriages from whatever it is they are running from.

Then there is another me who says “Who are you to write a grocery list let alone a book? Who are you to save the world? Why do you get to listen to stars? How come you get to live out your fantasy?” And then she goes in for the kill, “You already have so much, why do you need more? Don’t be greedy, leave these dreams here for someone else, they don’t belong to you.”

That last bit, that’s the one that delivers the fatal shot. It confirms what I have always suspected—that I am a fraud, that I am taking what life has to offer under false pretenses. If only my friends, my readers, my professors, my boss, my husband, my cat knew who I really was they would never give me their love, a job, a soft purr, their praise or their endorsement.  Before I decided that having an above average college experience was not for me, I  met with someone from the Honors program. They told me  they wanted to be sure that the stellar performance of  the candidates during their first semester wasn’t  a fluke so they waited to see how the second one went before inviting students to the program. I left the meeting convinced that my third semester would reveal how abysmal my academic abilities really were and I preferred for that to happen without the pressure of being an Honor student.

I have gained a lot of wisdom since my college days and certainly since my brief stint as a failed trapeze artist. That part of me that creates and yearns and leaps knows that I am no fraud and that my dreams are my divine right, but I still hear the voice of that other me at important moments like this, when I am past the first enthusiastic leap and in danger of tumbling into the space between. Do you know how maddening it is to try and convince yourself of something half of you doesn’t believe? It’s like trying to win at poker against yourself—inevitably you end up calling your own bluff.

I spent that first day back in Istanbul locked in the apartment wearing sweatpants and alternating between crying, pacing and watching inspirational videos in hopes of finding the key to getting myself to the other side of the abyss. The crying was not helpful, nor were the sweatpants with the baggy knees especially when I happened to pace by a full length mirror. The videos didn’t do much for my spirit either as all they really offered was a prediction of there being many battles ahead which I will either win or lose, but should really try to win.

Defeated, lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling I pictured myself as a tiny sun hovering above the world with billions of other little orbs emanating light and floating around. I saw this pack of firefly souls and then I imagined my orb’s light going out and by seeing the darkness it left behind I was able to appreciate that my light, even if by a tiny fraction made the world brighter. Before you roll your eyes, know that I threw up in my mouth a little just writing that, but if you’ve ever sat in an apartment in a foreign country with the curtains drawn and cracker crumbs stuck to your dried up tears, you know that spiritually bankrupt beggars can’t be choosers, at least not when it comes to what New Age-y vision motivates them to finally take a shower and leave the house.

Walking down the street I started thinking about what would be lost if I gave up on the big plans I have for myself and I came up with a long list that included making a friend laugh so hard she peed a little, strangers thanking me for inspiring them to walk, my cousin calling me to say that if it wasn’t for me drilling my “follow your heart” mantra into her skull she wouldn’t be deliciously happy and living in Vienna and my dad telling me I’m his best friend. Everything on the list had this in common— it made someone else feel good, even if they soiled themselves in the process. My heart’s greatest whims are always in service to others, that they bring me pleasure at the same time is a fantastic plot twist.  On the milelong scroll of my wants you will find the odd self-indulgent item or five, but these are not the things I am afraid of never attaining, it is not their imagined loss I mourn when I am in the space between, crying into my pajama sleeve.  I would love to wake up at the Plaza Hotel someday and order champagne at seven in the morning, but if I get to do the stuff that’s at the very top of my list, I won’t have time for that sort of nonsense. Fine, I might be able to find a sliver of time for that particular bit of nonsense but you get where I’m going with this.

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The realization that ultimately I am driven by a desire to contribute and give back rather than to simply take was my ticket out of the abyss and it left judgmental nemesis-me stumped. How could she continue calling  my dreaming greedy when what I want is to make travel more accessible for others? How could walking around the world be asking for too much when it encourages others to ask for more?  How could a journey that has already changed my life and the lives of others not be destined to continue with the same magic ability to transform and connect?

I started my pilgrimage around the world as I always do, jumping headfirst into a new adventure,  but as I am swinging over the space between the hopes I left with and their fulfillment somewhere in the distance, I’m starting to think there’s no abyss at all anymore. In fact, I think I might just take a leisurely stroll to the other side. You guys coming?

Snapshots from the Via Francigena Part 1

I have now walked over 800 km and yet I am only halfway done with the Via Francigena. This first month of my pilgrimage around the world has come and gone in a blink of an eye and though I am so different from the person I was when I set out in June, it really does feel like I am only halfway through. A pilgrimage is like a prescribed course of treatment and though I can only guess which maladies this journey is supposed to cure, I know that I am not through taking my medicine yet.

Here’s something I’ve figured out recently— discovering new parts of yourself doesn’t mean that you can see yourself more clearly.  As is often the case, answers just bring on more questions; when you realize you’ve been wrong about some things, you start to wonder what else you’ve been wrong about. I’ve always thought of myself as a city slicker, but now that I’ve hiked the length of a country and am about to cross the Alps on foot, can I really still call myself that?  Or now that I’ve eaten my body weight in croissants in a month can I still call myself fit? And what about the fact that my pants are significantly roomier—is there even a word for someone who loses weight by eating baked goods? Am I an anomaly? Are there others like me?

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Before I fall headfirst into a week of Swiss chocolate and steep mountains (hopefully not literally) I’d like to share some of the most memorable moments from the last month.  None of these were life changing, but together they have carved out a path that I know will open up a whole other world for me.

Canterbury, 0 km

The night before starting the Via Francigena, I dreamt of bundles of fragrant eucalyptus, bunches of dusty miller, burgundy berries and blush pink roses appearing at my doorstep. I knew exactly what to do with them, making bouquets and filling vase after vase after vase. The sense of abundance swelled as more and more flowers appeared out of nowhere until mid-bouquet, I woke up.

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That morning, standing in Canterbury Cathedral’s Roman crypt Colin and I received a pilgrim’s blessing from Canon Clare Edwards. As she lit a candle, Canon Clare explained that the rite is carried out here because it is the oldest part of the Cathedral and a blessing performed in the heart of the cathedral might have more potency. As a subtle, sweet smell from the white stock in a vase near the altar reached my nose, Canon Clare began to read:

“May flowers spring up where your feet touch the earth. May the feet that walked before you bless your every step. May the weather that’s important be the weather of your heart. May your prayers be like flowers strewn for other pilgrims…”

 

Calais, 30km

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While Colin took photos of August Rodin’s “Les Bourgeois de Calais” I hid behind the sculpture and quietly dug into his half of the caramel chocolate bar we’d brought on the ferry over from Dover. Obviously, I wasn’t quiet enough because Colin busted me mid-bite and snapped a photo.  Later, after it began to rain we rewrote and sang the Beatles’ “Yesterday” as “Four Days Ago.” The new lyrics were a tribute to our life back in New York without backpacks, blisters or soggy shoes. Our relationship has always been playful, and it is this ability to find lightness just about anywhere that has carried us through separations, health scares and family tragedies over the last eight years.

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Wisques, 82 km

At the Abbey de Notre Dame everything is magic. Sister Lucie is a nun unlike any other, and not just because she makes jokes about there being vodka in my water bottle.  She is warm and open and completely unaffected when I tell her that I am not Christian.  Instead, she makes me pose for photos for a bulletin board in the Abbey. The other visitors staying here include Marlene and Christian, a couple of pilgrims headed in the opposite direction to Canterbury (more on them later) and Claire, a beautiful girl who is engaged but has a spark of wanderlust she can’t shake that terrifies her. In the morning she walks with me on my way out of the village and we talk about boys and love and travel. She reminds me of myself when I first realized I’d never be happy staying still and I tell her what I wish someone had told me when I was lost in my fantasies of adventure, feeling guilty for wanting more than the assigned trajectory. “You are not alone,” I say and she is visibly relieved.  When we reach the end of town, she stops, ‘I can’t go any further with you, I’m scared I won’t find my way back.”  We hug and part ways, at least for now.

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Thérouanne, 95 km

I reach Thérouanne just in time for an afternoon break and walk into a large, airy café filled with houseplants and watercolor paintings, more like someone’s lovingly arranged living room than a stopover for strangers. The owner, and the only other person in the place is as carefully put together as her space and is in deep contrast with my sweaty, red face and dusty hiking boots. Madame Michelle Boulot Delvart takes no notice of my appearance and offers me a beer. We make small talk until I mention that I live in the States and her face lights up. “I was in the States once with my son. He was in a triathlon,” she disappears behind a door and then reappears with a heavy folder that she puts in front of me. Inside are maps of California, photos of her and her son, of Death Valley, receipts and brochures, all of it perfectly preserved for over a decade.  In the course of an hour she goes through everything in the folder and I understand that this trip with her youngest child is one of her life’s fondest memories. Before I leave she shows me her back garden filled with rose bushes, jasmine, lettuce and raspberries and then she plucks a handful of lavender stems and hands them to me. The lavender has long since dried up, but I still carry the blossoms with me, a fragrant souvenir of an unexpected afternoon.

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Amettes, 112 km

I am ecstatic as I walk through fields of wheat and poppies in the morning.  I can hear this universal heartbeat made up of everything that buzzes and honks and sighs and aches and blooms and withers. It is all intertwined, a mess of imaginary wires holding the world together. I hear a plane above me and for a moment everything stops. I look up and see my eight-year-old self on her way to America staring down  at this grown up version of herself through the clouds. I am both of these Mashas at the same time. I can feel what they are both feeling and just for a second, I know that everything good that has ever happened to me is still unfolding somewhere in the pockets of the universe, that no one I’ve ever loved has ever been lost and all of the horrible experiences of my life were no more real than a bad dream. And then it was over. The plane became just a plane again and I was alone in a field in France, dumbfounded.

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Péronne, 200 km

In the hostel in Péronne I met Mayling and Andrew, two pilgrims from the U.K. walking as far as the Col of St. Bernard on the border between Switzerland and Italy. Of the handful of pilgrims walking the Via Francigena that I’d met so far, every one had already walked the Camino de Santiago, including these two. The Camino, it seems is the gateway drug for those of us with an addiction to thousand-year-old roads. Over a bottle of rosé and pizzas topped with anchovies to spicy sausage Andrew tells me about his career n the beading business.  “It’s not as exciting now, “he says “but it used to be that we would find a bead whose origins we didn’t know and we’d go chasing after it around the world, eventually tracking it down to one man in Ethiopia.”  I know think of him as the Indiana Jones of the jewelry business.

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Seraucourt-le-Grand, 226 km

At the camping in Seraucourt I bump into Anna and Max, two German pilgrims that I first met at the very beginning with Colin when all four of us were lost in the woods near Licques.  Even though we barely know each other, seeing them is like seeing old friends. We make pasta and salad and eat at a picnic table by their tent along with another pilgrim named James.

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After dinner I invite everyone back to the little waterfront house I’m staying in for a glass of wine. We sit on the dock, James and I cooling our feet in the pond until the moon comes up through the trees on the other side.  Though Anna is almost thirty years my senior, we giggle like a couple of teenage girls over nothing in particular while Max looks on, our stoic, paternal guardian. I love this moment.  I love that we are strangers who will all remember this night, this moon and this pond exactly so. A sliver of time only shared by us and even if we never see each other again, we will forever have this common ground.

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