As we enter the season of giving, I want to share with you some of the gifts to take with you through the darkest time of the year and on into the growing light of next year. These are the gifts for the pilgrimage, out in the world or at home. These are intangible gifts that don’t come wrapped neatly in a bow but gifts that grow the heart and remind us of our essential nature.
Ceremony: This is the conscious interaction of giving and receiving. When you are at a sacred site you honor the spirit and energy of the place with a ceremony. The ceremony is totally of you, in the way you choose. I prefer to do a ceremony that doesn’t draw attention to myself or the act. This is a very personal moment and can be shared with others or just for your personal connection and thanksgiving. The elements are a prayer or words of connection and thanks, a desire to receive the gifts and energy of the site and a gift back to the site. These gifts can be a prayer, song, holy water, traditional offering of tobacco or sage, flowers or anointing oils. The gifts should be appropriate to the site and not interfere with the energy or physical space of the site.
Prayer: Formal, informal, walking or just breathing, pilgrimages are a living prayer. These are the words that form the devotion and connection to the Divine. All religions have prayers, and the repeating of those prayers bring power to the space and comfort to the pilgrim. I went to the cathedral in Santiago early in the morning and sat in a small chapel with a few pilgrims that were saying the Rosary. That beautiful prayer of longing that has been repeated billions of times was perfect for the time and place that morning. Choose a prayer that you are comfortable with and that is appropriate for the place or find the spontaneous prayer that comes from your heart. Thank-you is prayer enough.
Maps: For millennia, map makers have been trying to make sense of our world by making symbols on a piece of paper. The coastlines, forest, mountains, deserts and rivers become accessible in our minds with maps. Without a map, we don’t have directions to find our goal. The modern GPS may give us the next turn but there is nothing like a large paper map to see our world. A pilgrimage needs a map to see the overall experience, to learn the terrain, see the obstacles, find the right road or path. Our heart also has a map and as you step out into the world the map of your heart is drawing new territory. You have the abundant rivers of the good times, the forest of the unknown, the cities of community, the oceans of knowledge, deserts of sorrow and mountains of attainment. On a pilgrimage you will remember your personal map of your past and make new routes for your future.
The first time I visited Yosemite it was like walking in a dream. I couldn’t seem to wake myself and hold onto the immense, overwhelming reality of nature. I could see the granite walls of El Capitan and Half Dome, I could hear the waterfalls and watch the mist fall to the rocks below. But somehow it was just too much for me to process in a short visit and I knew I wanted to go back someday to really experience this mighty land. Yosemite was at the top of my travel wish list.
Then, the perfect opportunity appeared. I had airline vouchers left from a canceled trip and had plans to visit friends in central California—Yosemite seemed the perfect socially distanced vacation. I was able to book early enough to get a hotel in the park, allowing us a coveted entry permit. This time, I wanted to experience Yosemite the way I love to see the world, on foot, following my heart deep into the beauty of nature.
The first day we stopped at a grocery store to pick up breakfast and lunch supplies and then drove the rest of the morning, arriving at the park entrance at lunch time. It isn’t easy to get to Yosemite. There are long curving roads with few guardrails to protect from the precipitous drops as we climbed higher into the great Sierra Nevada mountains. We spent the afternoon enjoying the famous and spectacular Yosemite Valley. High granite walls make a narrow valley floor with large ponderosa pines and a gentle, meandering river. We stopped and put our feet in the river, smelled the warm pines, said hello to a deer who was complete unimpressed with our presence. I love the dry warm air with a gentle breeze and the amazing smell and feel of the vast western United States, so different from the humid south. By late summer, the waterfalls that make the valley impossibly beautiful have dried up but we were able to walk the short path to lower Yosemite Falls which still had a bit of water. Hamilton spent time rock climbing in the valley in his 20’s and enjoyed reliving the memory of his adventurous youth.
That first evening we drove about thirty miles down to our hotel at the far southern end of this park which is about the size of Rhode Island. I booked us into the newly renovated Victorian hotel, The Wawona, built around 1903. It is charming with claw-footed tubs and wide porches; but, alas no air conditioning so we made do on the hot summer nights with a fan. The dinning room offers three buffet meals a day and I was happy with the quick and easy dinner and then back to our room to read ourselves to sleep—no tv or internet but some cell service.
We had the next three days to hike so I strategically chose trails to give us the best experience of the park. I knew our hiking limit was around 8 miles a day at 7000 feet altitude and I don’t really love trails that are extremely steep. With the help of a good guide book, I chose our first trail close to our hotel—the trail to the Giant Sequoias. The largest trees on earth, they only grow in a small area of the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. They grow up to 300 feet tall, 29 feet in diameter and live to 3000 years. Because of pandemic restrictions and a storm that badly damaged the trees near the parking lot, the only way to reach the Sequoias is a two mile walk to the beginning of the trail and then another mile to Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree. Further up the trail, we met Cothespin Tree and The Faithful Couple—two trees growing together. Ultimately, we made it to the Mariposa Grove of about 80 Giant Sequoias, all identified but not named. Our final destination was to a summit overlooking a green valley and a fire watch station for the surrounding area. We had lunch of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, cheese, apples, cashews and chocolate. The trip back down gave us another perspective of these amazing beings, sentient and strong, wise and resilient. We hiked nearly 10 miles and were ready for a cold drink and a hot shower. Hiking brings the most delicious exhaustion with brilliant memories of beauty and a satisfaction of a trail well walked.
For our second hike, we chose to drive to Glacier Point, an overlook of the Yosemite Valley and a closer view of the iconic Half Dome. We arrived early so we could miss the crowds and see the valley in the morning light, tinged with a bit of smoky haze from the wildfires farther north. We parked at the McGurk Meadow trailhead that went to the Dewey Point trail. The first half of the trail was through a boggy meadow. I didn’t expect to see such beautiful wildflowers that time of year, but the purple and yellow flowers were busy with golden butterflies and fat yellow bumblebees. Farther down the trail we climbed higher through large groves of pines, weaving through the freshly cut stumps of downed trees recently cleared by the park service. After a final steep hill, we came to a magnificent overlook directly across from El Capitan and looking down the valley to Half Dome. Yet another perfect luncheon spot with the same menu as the day before—peanut butter is always delicious after a four-mile climb. I was delighted to see the flower meadows again on the way back to the trail head and happily climbed into the air conditioned car after 8 miles of hiking. We stopped again at the market near the hotel and got gas and cold drinks. The only beer available just happened to be Hamilton’s favorite oatmeal stout. We flopped onto the porch chairs and pulled off our boots and enjoyed our drinks with some snacks before a bath and an early dinner. The evening was warm and the room was hot so we mostly fell asleep early and enjoyed the extra rest.
On the third day, we debated how far we would be able to hike but as we drove along and had some coffee, we made our next plan for the Tuolumne Meadows area north of the valley and in the more alpine country of the John Muir Trail. The Elizabeth Lake trail seemed to be the right length and incline for our sore legs and time constraints, and it turned out to be perfect. The first part of the trail was fairly steep and, at 8000 feet, I had to stop often and catch my breath and drink some water but eventually the trail leveled off and I found myself in “Alpine Hobbitland” all presided over by Unicorn Peak (10,823 ft). I’m sure if I looked closely there were fairies and water sprites–it was that picture-perfect. We chose a log by the shining Elizabeth Lake and had the same hikers’ lunch that always seems to satisfy. Around the edge of the lake were a few other hikers with fishing poles and families enjoying the clear, cold water. This trail was only five miles but the incline and the altitude were plenty for the third and final hike of our Yosemite adventure.
That afternoon we drove back to Sacramento to an airport hotel for our flight the next morning. We were so hungry and dirty, the best we could find was a dinner of In and Out burgers and fries and a shared chocolate shake to end the long but glorious trip. I enjoyed the air-conditioned room and made sure I was good and cold all night long. The flights back were slightly delayed but otherwise uneventful and we got home safe and sound. Caroline did a great job taking care of the farm while we were away.
I was so happy to have such a complete experience of Yosemite and feel like I really got a long and deep encounter of this iconic land. By walking into the land, I saw, smelled, felt and heard the world around me and was able to absorb nature deep into my bones. To a certain extent, Yosemite will always be a dream but now it is a dream I can hold on to and re-experience anytime my mind wants to wander down a deep forest trail or overlook a granite valley. Dream and memory are now woven tightly together.
Hamilton and I enjoyed our adventure so much that we are now planning to visit other parks for some extended day hikes and adventures—I’m looking at you, Olympic and Glacier. Thank goodness the Great Smoky Mountains are in my back yard to keep me happily hiking through out the year.
About a century ago—in January 2020–I planned to visit Ireland in September and Alexandra had reservations for Japan. We all know what happened next: plans changed, life took a detour and staycations became the new way of life. Fortunately, one of the major tourist destinations in the United States is in my own back yard so to speak. Every time I drive to town, I’m treated to a perfect view of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Daily, I get to see these ancient mountains in all their glory. Many days they are clear with gradations from deep purple to lavender. Then there is the winter with snow and clouds turning purple to pure white. Many days the clouds reflect the name “Smoky” and a misty haze covers the horizon. I don’t often make the hour drive to the park itself but, when I do, I love the rocky stream beside the road, the dense tree-cover overhead and the sweet wet smell of the moss and ferns. The Smokies really don’t have many vistas; it is more like being in a massive Zen garden where Nature herself has curated every inch to be perfect. In the autumn, the Smokies put on a magnificent show when the trees are ablaze, and the air is cool and dry and the sky is bright blue. I am so happy to have a staycation in this magical place.
When Alexandra was little girl, we would go play in the cold mountain stream on hot summer days but never hiked. But ever since we walked the Camino in 2014, hiking has become such a joy and a priority. And we are very compatible hiking pals. We are also wanting to make the most of her extended time in East Tennessee since she will be working from home until at least next year. We are using this time-out-of-time to make the most of our lives here and now. So let me tell you about our September adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains.
For our first hike, I chose “The Chimneys”. This is a well-known trail that isn’t very long but very steep with hundreds of stairs up to a rock outcropping and a beautiful overlook. The path starts flat and has several bridges over a wide, rushing stream that tumbles down massive boulders. If we had just stopped there, it was worth the hour and a half drive. But then the trail starts the assent which means at least it is downhill coming back. Fortunately, we have a trail on the farm with a steep hill and so I’m use to the incline but it was still a big challenge. Everywhere you look is a feast for the eyes—deep green moss, dark tree trunks, rock outcroppings and leafy canopy. The fresh air and rushing water fills in what the eyes miss for a full body experience. We were tired at the end, but I was glad to get to mark that trail off in my hiking book as a trail well done.
Sunshine illuminating the path
As we were driving to the hike, Alexandra mentioned she would love to pet a deer as we love seeing the deer on our lawn feeding at dawn and dusk. I had her google petting zoos and amazingly, there was a deer park and exotic petting zoo just 30 minutes from the trail in the next town over. You know we had to go right then! Instant manifestation of desired deer petting, and did we have fun. The Smoky Mountain Deer Farm and Exotic Petting Zoo is full of goats, deer, horses of all kinds, ostrich and emus and beautiful reindeer. Most of the animals you could feed either a corn mix or apple slices. We started in a big pen of Fallow deer. They loved the food and we were quickly surrounded. If you weren’t careful some of the deer would give a light nip from the rear so they could get some too—I must say a bit overwhelming but fun. We enjoyed the pen of goats with docile babies that love being held, I loved cuddling their warm furry bodies. But our favorites were the Sitka deer and reindeer—so gentle and beautiful. We were dirty and tired by the end of our day but so happy with our mini vacation. Plans are already being made to return to the deer park, maybe with some outlet shopping first.
A few weeks later I chose a hike on the famed Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine, over 2000 miles. We did a four-mile section to a point called Charlie’s Bunion, an outcropping of rock with a magnificent view. This is the part of the trail that starts on the North Carolina/Tennessee line and is at 5000 ft elevation. The trail is rocky and the rainy remains of a hurricane made the trail like a small stream. I definitely had to be careful not to turn an ankle. This higher elevation had a special feel with dense moss and hemlock trees which smelled like Christmas, so we chattered on about this year’s Christmas plans. Unfortunately, the beautiful vista was a pure white cloud, so we hungrily ate our PB and J sandwich and headed back down. I did slip on the way back, my legs were getting like rubber by then, but fortunately there was another hiker right behind me who took hold of my arm which softened the fall so I wasn’t hurt. We were happy to see our car and the vista from the parking lot. Some ibuprofen and a latte got us home to hot showers and beef stew in the crockpot. The hike was 8 miles of rough trail but I felt like I had a big accomplishment and a magnificent adventure in our beautiful world.
My blog posts got a bit derail by the pandemic but I wanted to tell you about our adventures in Mexico City last November, a chance for some vicarious travel.
After our time in Teotihuacan, we took two cars back to Mexico City, about an hour away. Bowens are very tall people and we couldn’t fit into just one regular car. Within an hour, we arrived at our beautiful Airbnb in Roma Norte. Alexandra’s earlier trip to Mexico City helped us locate the part of the city that we really wanted to explore. After an ATM stop, groceries and a bit of gawking at the beautiful architecture, we took a rest, got some dinner and settled in for some Netflix. I suggested the girls watch Frida since we were going to Frida Kahlo’s home the next day.
I have known Frida Kahlo’s enigmatic self-portraits for many years but last summer several of her paintings were on exhibit in Nashville along with paintings of her husband Diego Rivera. There is great energy in these glimpses into Frida’s fractured soul. Her pain and intensity shine through each painting like nothing else in that gallery or museum. I learned more about her life and was pleased to glimpse into her creative world. I made reservations a month in advanced and was able to skip the long line of people waiting for their turn in the small house/museum. Fortunately, her home is preserved as she left it and this shrine to a remarkable soul remains available to inspire me. I have not known the physical pain that Frida endured but through her home and work I could touch the creative spirit that came through despite her difficult life. Frida was totally and completely herself in art and in life. The beautiful, lush courtyard was painted a brilliant blue, an oasis in a bustling city. Everywhere you can still experience her creativity and personal style be it nature, art, clothes, furniture and books. We wandered for an hour or so, soaking in the sunlight, imagining Frida’s life, both beautiful and painful.
Next on the agenda was the SUN STONE. I had no idea it was in Mexico City in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. The Aztec sun stone was discovered in 1790. It has many interpretations including the one I was familiar with, the 2012 Mayan calendar predictions. In the early 2000’s the sun stone was the center of the December 21, 2012 end of the Mayan Long Count calendar. There was much speculation about the meaning. Would the world end? Would we enter a new spiritual era? I read a lot of books on the possible meaning of the 2012 date. I don’t participate in apocalyptic theories but I did find it all interesting and I liked the history of the Mayan people. The sun stone was a major focus for many years.
The museum is big and beautiful with different rooms for each epoch surrounding a central courtyard with a big fountain. Each room leads to a beautiful garden. I could have stayed all day but I wanted to see the sun stone. It is prominently displayed as the central artifact in the largest room. I had no idea it was so enormous and breath-taking. I savored all the artifacts and slowly wound my way to the stone I read about for so many years. But as much as I loved the sun stone the museum had another surprise for me. My friend Karen-who lived in Mexico City-told me that everyone she took to that museum had a mystical experience but the triggering object was always a surprise. As much as I loved the sun stone it was not my trigger. My experience came a couple of rooms later. Hamilton went to sit on a bench in the courtyard and I went on alone and came face to face with the Olmec head, a giant human face carved from a basalt boulder. I can’t really describe my experience but it was intense and there was something about this Olmec head that rocked my world for that moment. There are 17 of these heads around central America and date from at least 900 BC. They definitely remind me of the Easter Island Moai statues and the faces of Brahman in Cambodia. Sun stones, Olmec heads, pyramids to the gods—so much we don’t know but I love the mystery. I revel in the mystery.
Sunday I wanted to see the cathedrals. You know I have to see the cathedrals. But travel always has surprises, especially when you don’t speak the language. The Mexico City Metropolitan cathedral is in the center of the city next to the National Palace. The traffic was intense and the Uber driver said something to us and we just acted like we understood. What he was probably telling us –giant political rally for the presidential elections. We could not get anywhere near the cathedral. Instead were thousands and thousands of people, hundreds and hundreds of police all around giant screens projecting the loud speeches. We had a long walk to get where we could get another Uber. Finally, we headed to the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. More crowds lead the way up to the packed Basilica in the middle of one of several Masses that day. It was the first day of Advent and close to Our Lady of Guadalupe feast day. We watched a bit of the Mass and saw a group of young girls in white awaiting their first communion. I didn’t see the relic or the rest of the Basilica but I experienced something special- the Mexican people’s devotion to their saint. That day wasn’t about me visiting cathedrals but about experiencing life being lived with enthusiasm and devotion. Political rallies, venerating saints—it was real life in Mexico, so different from my world but so inspiring.
There was also good food, margaritas, craft markets and above all, family time. We all loved our experience in Mexico and came away with wonderful memories and a deep appreciation for the rich culture and kind people of Mexico.
A couple of weeks ago, Alexandra was ready to have a trip to town. Since she was working from home she had not been anywhere in a couple of weeks and was hungry for a Dairy Queen vanilla cone. I needed some plumbing parts from Home Depot to fix a leaky faucet. The ice cream was just what she wanted and we headed home through the countryside to our small rural town. About halfway home she saw some cows in a field, including several calves. I promise, she has seen baby cows before, but even though she is closing in on 30, any baby animal brings a delight usually reserved for toddlers. She made me turn around so she could admire the babies. We found a driveway to pull in to and had a perfect view of a mama giving her baby a bath. The little one stood patiently as mama’s rough tongue cleaned under its chin, each lick making the baby lift up a bit, yet the bath happily continued for several minutes. It was a mini-magical moment for Alexandra and me. In the background, were the purple silhouettes of the Great Smokey Mountains. The rolling spring-green field contrasted with the dark angular bodies of the Black Angus cows. It was a simple, bucolic moment but yet one of perfect contentment for the mama and baby and me and my sweet girl. At that moment, all was right with the world because Alexandra had noticed. She noticed the simple beauty of babies in a field and wanted to savor that moment.
Noticing. This is how we pilgrimage to the present. This isn’t remembering the past or anticipating the future but finding those little moments of everyday life as special and beautiful. Currently our physical worlds are reduced in size as we tend to the business of life and health. But our internal world is infinite when we take time to notice the beauty of life. It is in connecting with nature and the amazingly creative human mind and spirit that we find those timeless moments that feed our soul. It is so easy to get caught in the negative and the difficult and forget to see, to notice the abundance all around, the opportunities to enrich our minds and souls. I’ve enjoyed the operas, ballets, gardens and museums that are online for us to enjoy in a way I haven’t before. I’ve had time to read and tend my house, cook and take a daily walk to enjoy the spring flowers and budding trees.
My sweet friend Becky was reading a passage in my book about pilgrimages to your own back yard. She took that idea to heart and noticed that her own backyard needed some tending and decided to build a “pretty little garden” where she could put her hands in the dirt and find refuge from her busy “on-line” life. Every day she would pilgrimage a few short steps to her little place on earth and found healing and peace. She shared her special space on Instagram. It is up to each of us to find and nurture that space of time and place to pilgrimage; we just have to stop and notice.
Noticing, observing– brings gratitude for the details of your surroundings, the little things that are often ignored but actually hold the essence of life. Notice the taste of simple food, the earthy smell of a cat, the softness of worn sheets, the heaviness of a hardbound book, the tattered edges of a warm rug, the brilliant purple of the tiny violets in the grass. Notice the bird songs in the early morning, the whipporwill’s call at dusk, the croaking frogs after a rain. Each of these things and an infinite amount of other little things in our world become a moment of pilgrimage to our life as we live right here, right now.
My dear cosmic mother Rachael passed away last month. She was in very poor health, the perfect target for Covid-19. As I mourn her loss, I think about something she would often say, “we are in the glory now”. By noticing, we experience Now in each glorious moment.
One of the wonderful things about having grown children is how they expand my life through their adventures and accomplishments. It almost makes up for them leaving me with an empty nest-not quite but almost. In 2018 Alexandra and a friend climbed the tallest mountain in Mexico, Pico de Orizaba (18,491 ft). She finished out her vacation at Teotihuacan, a place that had been calling me for over ten years. Since she didn’t summit the first time, she wanted another attempt, I wanted to meet her in Teotihuacan so we made plans for the whole family to go to Mexico City for Thanksgiving.
Teotihuacan is just 25 or so miles northeast of Mexico City and at the top of my must-see list. This enormous archeological site has three main pyramids along with dozens of smaller structures all along the 1.5-mile Avenue of the Dead. This enormous Mesoamerican city was constructed over 2000 years ago but not much is known about the original builders. The Aztecs later moved in and named it Teotihuacan, “place where gods are born”. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third tallest pyramid in the world and the equally impressive Pyramid of the Moon is surrounded by platforms and smaller pyramids. At the far end of the Avenue of the Dead is the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. We stayed in a charming hotel that was on the archaeological site where The Pyramid of the Sun was my constant reminder I was on sacred ground.
The first morning we rose early to have our first full experience of Teotihuacan, floating gently, silently over the pyramids in a hot air balloon bathed in the early morning light. The terrain and gentle steady winds make it an ideal place for hot-air balloons. I can’t think of a more magical way to experience this magnificent place. This was my first balloon ride and I was ready for the adventure. Over the course of about a half hour, twenty colorful balloons launched into the pink haze of sunrise to drifted over the Pyramid of the Sun. Silently, the balloon’s shadow crossed over the ancient stones and down the Avenue of the Dead. This eagle-eye’s view of the entire site, well before the day’s visitors, was a gift from the gods. There I was, floating above this ancient world that was still so powerful that the awe of the gods was palpable. We continued to float over the town for another hour, past the churches and schools, until we were expertly landed in a nearby field. After a traditional champagne toast and hearty buffet breakfast we had a nap before heading to climb the pyramids.
I planned two full days at Teotihuacan and was glad not to be rushed by just a day trip. After lunch, we set out from our hotel for the 15-minute walk to the main entrance. I suggested we walk all the way to the Pyramid of the Moon and then slowly make our way back. The Avenue of the Dead goes up and down stairs, in and out of what remains of the glories of this impressive city. We took our time to enjoy the walk while avoiding the endless sellers of puma calls and woven blankets. Lots of school groups were easily absorbed in the vastness of the complex and we felt we had the place mostly to ourselves. A climb to the top of the platform of the Pyramid of the Moon was first on the agenda. It wasn’t a long or hard climb, but the altitude (7000 ft) made me a bit winded but the view was worth the effort. Hot and thirsty, we wandered back to the hotel to sit by the pool and were surprised by Alexandra’s early arrival. She realized she was not up to the intensity of the summit and so just enjoyed the climb and extra time with her family.
After breakfast the next day, all four of us headed to the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. We wanted to beat the heat and visit what we saved from the day before. Hamilton climbed the Pyramid of the Sun while I sat nearby listening to music and soaking in the sun on Thanksgiving Day. I was so thankful to be with my family and visit this remarkable and sacred place. Hamilton and I visited the museum and were impressed by the pottery and sculptures that had once decorated the pyramids. In the heat of the afternoon, Hamilton read, and the ladies indulged in massages but our time a Teotihuacan had one more delight.
The glories of the ancient world collided with the wonders of the modern world with a Sound and Light show on the Pyramid of the Sun. As we walked into the darkened site we were treated to the crescent moon and sparkling Venus, a celestial light show. The show first started with a walk up the Avenue of the Dead toward the Pyramid of the Moon beautifully illuminated with changing colors. Without the distractions in the daylight, I became part of the site and felt transported by the experience. We each had a smartphone that gave a detailed history and showed what the site looked like throughout history. Next, we sat on cushions in front of the Pyramid to the Sun. Thanks to virtual reality I was able to glimpse into a probable past of the history of Teotihuacan. For a brief time, this great pyramid was once again decorated with color and sculptures to the great gods. All too soon, the lights faded, and the pyramids receded back to their stony silence. But, even though the ages have taken their toll and our view of the gods have evolved, this magnificent place still holds the power to transform and remains a place where “man became gods”.
You don’t have to go to the ends of the earth for a pilgrimage to change you. Some of the loveliest places can be close to home. Pilgrimage is a perspective as well as an experience. Pilgrimage is seeing the divinity that is all around. Next month I will be back with new content but today enjoy a happy journey from a few years ago.
For most people visions of heaven include pearly gates, streets of gold and jewel encrusted mansions but not in my world. All I have to do is go to Kentucky to find my version of nirvana and it is called Shaker Village. After my lovely time at the Serpent Mound, and fortified with a latte, I retraced my path back to Lexington for the night. I had one more essential pilgrimage stop to make the next day. I needed a Shaker Village fix.
These days I live in my in-law’s home which is decorated in a style I would call High Ostentation but in my heart I prefer a style more like Early Convent. My Taurus/Virgo soul longs for a tidy house with white walls and simple furniture. The Shakers perfected this style and brought it to a high art.
So who were the Shakers? They were a branch of the Quakers who came to America looking for religious freedom. Lead by Mother Ann Lee, the first communities were started in the late 1700’s and formed around 20 utopian centers with 6000 members at the peak of popularity. These communities were founded on principles of equality for the sexes and races, celibacy and pacifism. Men and women lived separately but worked together and the congregations grew by recruitment since procreation wasn’t allowed. In the early 1900’s the communities stopped taking members and were eventually closed
Spiritually they believe God was both male and female and the imminent second coming of Christ. They worshiped in stark meeting rooms with narrow benches and no pulpit. The service consisted of singing, dancing and ecstatic states of shaking and shouting thus they got the name “Shakers”. They wrote many songs for their worship and the most popular tune is Simple Gifts, immortalized in Aaron Copeland’s work Appalachian Spring.
The communities were self-sustaining farms and invented many new labor-saving devises. The Kentucky Shakers were know for their brooms and high-quality seeds as well as furniture and weaving. Hard work was important to them so all the communities thrived. They believed that beautifully made simple furniture was an act of prayer. Each building and room was perfectly planned for simplicity, practicality and order and ideal which has had a lasting influence on American design.
Shaker Village in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, is like stepping back in time. On this perfect September day the buildings glowed in the sun with a back drop of purple/blue sky. Pumpkins and corn stocks decorate the stack stone fences and there is just a hint of color in the trees that line the lane; translation—-pure joy. I wandered the buildings looking at the magnificent worn furniture, craft demonstrations, amazing circular staircases and stark perfection. I wandered into the dinning room for corn pudding and buttermilk pie, headed down to the old barn to see the friendly ram and horses and felt the gentle grace of this place frozen in time. During a past visit I sang Simple Gifts in the meeting hall where that song has reverberated thousands of times and I’m thrilled to sing it for myself.
After having my joy quotient filled by two beautiful days in Kentucky. I headed back to Tennessee. I didn’t have far to go and on the way home I listened to John O’Donohue talk about beauty. I have been bathed in beauty and sacred vibration for two days which has left my heart singing and spirit cheerful. My quick pilgrimage had all the joys of any exotic journey with no jet lag or expensive tickets. So this Fall find a place to pilgrimage close to home and bring beauty and joy to your soul.
This month is the 5th anniversary of my Camino walk. The Camino was life changing and I miss it often. Enjoy this lovely memory with me. My daily posts on the Camino can be found in the archives in May and June 2014.
My book Pilgrimage: A Modern Seeker’s Guide was inspired by my walk on the Camino and many other pilgrimages around the world and close to home. The e-book is now priced at $5.99. Check it out at Amazon.
First Published June 2104
It wasn’t until the last week on the Camino that I could even think about Santiago, yet that was always the goal. Every day I concentrated on the next 20 km or talked about the next big town, Pamplona, Burgos, Leon. After Astorga, Santiago started to come into focus. There were rumors about a celebration in Santiago about the time I planned to get there. That was when I realized that if I arrived one day early I would be in Santiago for Pentecost, a holy day and a guaranteed Botafumeiro, the mammoth swinging incense censer in the nave of the Cathedral. See a video of the Botafumeiro here.
Pentecost is the graduation day for the Apostles, including St. James, after Christ’s Ascension. The Holy Spirit came to them in the Upper Room and sent tongues of fire to anoint them to go preach the Gospel. No more perfect day to finish my pilgrimage and graduate to the next stage of my life.
While Alexandra slept I spent Pentecost with St. James. I first listened to the beautiful chant of the Rosary. Next the Botafumeiro made its mighty journey through the Cathedral to the sounds of the organ and choir. I dreamed of this moment along with the centuries of pilgrims who had dreamed that same dream. I went to a chapel to celebrate Mass in English with an Irish priest. He read the story of Pentecost and we sang songs and lit a candle for all of the continents and peoples. I joined the main Mass where the Archbishop presided over Confirmation. I was having my graduation ceremony. I had completed my task.
I didn’t realize how much I was going to need those extra days in Santiago to process my experience. I saw pilgrim friends I hadn’t seen in weeks and we hugged and congratulated each other on a job well done. It was special to be at Pilgrim’s Mass with my fellow travelers, a shared experience to the end. I saw everyone I had hoped to see again and exchanged contact information.
I went to dinner with my friends and we talked about our favorite and least favorite Albergues, tales of the food, injuries and blisters and things we learned. One pilgrim was in tears because he finally forgave his father, others had come to terms with their past or had new hope for their future. We were all proud of our strong bodies and loose hiking pants. I cherished every moment of the language of the pilgrim, I miss it so much.
The next day my friends arrived by car with clothes for me and to share my triumph. It was hard to move out of the pilgrim world. The first day I put on a new shirt. The next day I put on different shoes but still wore my hiking pants. I had to reenter the world gradually. We went to Mass together and they were treated to the Botafumeiro, and I was glad to see it another time. We went behind the altar to touch the statue of St. James and went below to the crypt where his bones are kept in a silver casket.
All of my pilgrim rituals where complete and it was time to go. I left my worn out shoes and some clothes I couldn’t bear to wear again and a piece of my heart in Santiago.
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This summer I’m finishing my last classes for my Masters in Depth Psychology and speaking at the Jungian Society for Scholarly Studies in Asheville this June. As I work on my last few papers, I’m going to take some time from writing new posts. So please enjoy my favorite posts from the past and I will be back in October with new adventures.
This haiku by the poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is one of the most recognizable poems in Japan. Haiku is a short traditional form of Japanese poetry consisting of seventeen syllables divided into three sections of five-seven-five. It was Basho who perfected the haiku form, but he also wrote beautiful prose in the form of a travel log with the haiku inspired by his experiences. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is his best-known work and read by almost every Japanese high school student and translated more than any other work of Japanese literature.
I first learned of Basho while researching pilgrimage. I was already familiar with the haiku form and its popularity in both Japan and the West but going deeper into Basho’s life and work expands my understanding of the form, but more importantly informs my own pilgrimages and soul journey. Although Basho spent a great deal of time traveling, it is this pilgrimage to the Deep North that called his soul. To wander in nature and discover the world was not a luxury for Basho but a necessity for his poetry and the calling of his soul. On this journey, Basho developed a new form a writing called haibun, which alternates prose and haiku to describe his journey. The prose, equally as beautiful as the poems, explains the physical aspects of the journey where the haiku illuminates the internal images and experiences. He walked 1200 miles over five months with his disciple Sora and planned part of the route to include places described by other writers. Basho’s call to a pilgrimage was not a specific place but to experience whatever unfolded before him. “I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind–filled with a strong desire to wander”.
Basho’s words are beautiful in their simplicity and grace. He uses a lightness and gentleness to describe nature and life itself. Beauty becomes an essential element in the soul’s journey. Basho found beauty on his journey: in the change of seasons, fleeting moments of sun on dew, a hazy moon, the arch of the Milky Way. He found beauty in the smallest details of cherry blossoms, pine trees, wind and water. Life is fleeting and these details captured the ephemeral moment when life is perfect beauty. Basho took great delight and wonder in these moments that fed his soul’s path. It is in these brief moments that Basho experienced eternity and left a trace in his haiku.
Walking pilgrimages are inherently simple. Life is reduced to what you can carry on your back. Basho’s haiku perfectly alludes to the essentialness of his journey. Pleasure is found in the simple moment of a flower, the soft breeze, or sound of a cricket. Basho left behind the comforts of home and community to see the world in the simplest moments where the sacred is found. Basho doesn’t analyze or offer opinion on what he sees, rather he relates pure experiences as they happen in the moment and in his heart. Haiku becomes the way he expresses his journey. Although haiku is simple in form it is not simplistic for the subtly expressed by the image associations and verbal play enter in the depths of the human heart.
In the essence of his work, Basho is above all a nature poet. All his senses were tuned to the natural world and Basho misses none of the subtleties of the wind, seasons, smell and sound, often bringing him to tears in the moments of pure wonder and grace. His poetry and prose are words of praise and thanksgiving for life in all of its forms. The sea, rocks, stars, mountain, trees, flowers, all participated in Basho’s poems to the ineffable mystery of our world.
Although written almost 400 years ago, Basho’s story and poetry are timeless. His experiences and observations reflect his deep understanding of nature and his own interior life. Pilgrimage, as a time of solitude in nature, becomes a catalyst that opens an important soul space. Basho heard the call of this soul space and left a beautiful account of what that interior pilgrimage looks like. His words are those of the mystic that sees the sacred in all things and in all places.
The title of Basho’s story, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, reflects the physical road and is a metaphor for the quality of the interior journey for the sacred does not come with broad highways and neon signs. The sacred is found with effort on a narrow path that takes time and sacrifice, suffering and joy. There is no easy and quick way to a lasting relationship with nature and the soul. Hard work and dedication are needed to find these numinous moments when the world becomes alive with wonder as we step out of time into the timeless.
Later this year I am going to Japan to see for myself what inspired Basho. I will be walking part of the 88 Temple trail on Shikoku island, a 1000-year-old spiritual pilgrimage and a sister pilgrimage to the Camino. Basho did not walk this particular trail, he walked north of what is today Tokyo, but the landscape and culture as well as the search for the heart and soul of nature aligns me with the spirit of Basho. Basho wrote on many subjects that moved him to live in relationship with his soul and thus offers me language to seek the same beauty.