There is a scene in the film Wild, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, where the protagonist finally reaches the beginning of the Pacific Crest Trail after a very confusing time of loss and addiction. She takes some steps on the path, and very soon after those steps, she looks behind her, and then forward, realizing how far she’s come to get to this point, but still how far she has to go.
I too took a pilgrimage once. After devastating blow, after devastating blow, I found myself in the refuge of a Benedictine monastery, next to a monastic library, finally reading all the books I had forbidden myself to read before that time. I told myself, ‘because they weren’t theologically astute enough’, but really it was because I was afraid of what they might open up for me. That the dam built on the flood of my own true soul would burst, and there would be no telling what would be left of the “me” guarding that soul.
On the grounds of that monastery is a very old tree by the river. And although I was surrounded by good grandmother energy with the all the sisters, I was trying to be a “good steward of my pain”, as Fred Buechner wrote, I think in his book, Telling Secrets. So after I was finished working on the grounds, I would climb that old grandmother tree, and let her hold me as I wept. She was very tender and had the natural and wise capacity to absorb my suffering and hand it back out to the Infinite. It was like her roots were drinking from the river, to absorb my austerity, and let it flush away into the great Wholeness that could bear it.
While at the monastery, as I struggled to make sense of all that was happening, I also began to make plans to take a journey by myself, from Newfoundland to New Orleans, looking for music that came more from life than from the industry of music, along the way.
Partly this pilgrimage was a way to reconstruct some semblance of an identity. But it was also a way to move the story forward. It was also a way to feel at “home”, because I had spent many years on the road by that point, that it was sometimes more home than home was in those years.
In some ways, looking back, it really was my own internal ancestral wisdom telling me it was time to become a grown up. But there was no one around that could name what I needed. A ritual. An initiatory ceremony, with elders that could sit with me in that liminal space with no answers. And in other ways, it was the distance I needed to give myself permission to name my own trauma and not to feel like I was letting people down no matter how guilty some people made me feel.
I had a very small amount of money, got in my 1996 Passat Wagon with a questionable transmission, and left Winnipeg one day, with really no farewell, and drove 4,222kms to reach my beginning destination at Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland. From there, I slowly continued south, for the next 6 months, all the way to Louisiana. Along the way I was the minstrel on a tall ship for two weeks, I worked on a farm, helped to scrape and paint a farmhouse, and played music with many people from all walks of life. I was in the heart of the Mississippi Delta at juke joints in the middle of the night. I slept in my car most of the time, or on beaches, or off the beaten path in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Identifying wholeheartedly with the Orphan archetype, so I could eventually come to parent her, like we all must do.
Inside, I could feel almost nothing. Looking back, I think it is because I was tired of feeling too much. Slowly but surely, I was healing, although at the time, it looked like confusion on steroids. I wonder sometimes how many of us would heal more deeply if we were given the gift of it all falling apart. To sit in the belly of the whale with all but a few left you might call ‘friend’. To give yourself the freedom to make mistakes, and fumble your way through.
This reflection is not going to culminate with an answer. It is not going to wrap up neatly. The song for today is about those times in life when there are no answers, but we find our footing one day at a time, in the process of healing and growing and letting go.
I’ll end with the spoken word in the song from James Finley:
There comes a time in this process, where a person comes to realize that it was just as bad, or maybe worse than they thought it would be, to go through all this. But they also know that they’ve come to a point where there’s no turning back. They also know that they can’t force their way to closure on their own terms. And therefore, I’m betwixt and between two worlds. I’m so grateful I’m no longer as confused and thoroughly lost in the suffering as I used to be, but oh how I wish, that glimmer of freedom that I see could be realized. It’s a time where I need to be patient and prudently courageous, and let myself transform one day at a time. This is where I really learn to trust that I’m on a path, not of my own making, and I’m being transformed in this.
Thomas Merton once prayed to God, “Oh how far I have to go to come to rest in you, in whom I’ve already arrived. I only wish it were over. I only wish it were begun.”
Alana Levandoski is a song and chant writer, recording artist and music producer, in the Christian tradition, who lives with her family on an aspiring permaculture farm on the Canadian prairies.