I discovered a new pleasure this year which has become vital to my spiritual life and my ability to hear and God; my emotional balance and shalom; my psychological well-being; my ability to deal with stress; my creativity, and my happiness.
And no, it’s not prayer, though prayer, theoretically, offers all these benefits.But we are body as well as spirit, and so it is something akin to prayer–long walks.
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I started long walks in January because I had signed up for a pilgrimage to Tuscany on the Via Francigena.
I was not fit, and have not found it easy to acquire the new habit of long walks every day. There have been many, many days lost because it was cold, icy, rainy, or I was too absorbed in my writing.
But I have got back to the stamina I had 16 years ago, when Zoe was 2, and I used to walk with other mums, pushing her in her stroller, for the whole 4 mile trail in Kingsmill, the beautiful resort-like community in Williamsburg, where we lived for 9 years.
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It’s just a first step. Having been sedentary for so many years, four miles is a challenge! And my speed, I have discovered is not yet normal-person-speed.
So here I am on this pilgrimage in Tuscany on the Via Francigena, and I quickly discovered that I hadn’t trained sufficiently!
So I am doing a “pilgrimage lite” which has included exploring: San Gimingnano on Sunday, Volterra on Monday, Monteriggioni and Siena on Tuesday, more Siena today.
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One of my personal mantras is, “If you can not succeed, fail better.” Success is the result of a dozen, or a hundred “better failures.”
So though I have failed in my training for this pilgrimage—I did not get my stamina up to 11-14 miles a day (more like 4!) or my speed to 2. 25 miles an hour on hills—I am going to continue long walks, which give me the opportunity to spend long concentrated hours with God, and tie in with my love of travel.
* * *
Oh, I love travelling. I am, sadly, somewhat addicted to books, reading, writing, and the internet, and getting away is the only way to unhook myself from these things.
Getting away re-sets my mind. Left to myself, I begin to run down after some time. It takes me longer and longer to get going, and longer and longer to get my work done.
After a break, however, I come back with a new mind. Refreshed, able to read fast, think fast, write fast, and write for long hours.
* * *
Also, it is, sadly, easy for me to get my life, my heart, my spirit, and my schedule slightly unaligned with God. And, if one is even slightly unaligned with God, if you lean slightly away, what you land up with is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Very beautiful still, but, well, if it were not shored up by engineers and millions of euros, a disaster in the making.
But when I travel, when I walk alone contemplatively, when I walk in the hills or on the beaches, praying, I slowly re-align myself with God. I ask if I am on the right track. I ask him to reveal the plans he has for the next six weeks of my life, and the next year, or decade.
* * *
We explored bits of Switzerland, France and Italy last month in our camper van. And just on our way to Dover, we were caught in the most dreadful traffic jam and were barely crawling. I’m reading Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, which was also on my iPod, but I can no longer easily read in a moving car.
So Zoe suggested listening to the book, and following along, as a dual pleasure which I did for a bit, and enjoyed
And then, I thought, “Heck why all this striving? I am the child of a good God. Let me just rest in his love.”
I thought of Wordsworth’s poem, “Expostulation and Reply,”
“Nor less I deem that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.
“Think you, ‘mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?
Ah, doing nothing, resting, waiting. How alien to this modern world of scrambling, doing, achieving!
I closed the book, turned off the iPod, lay down, and rested. If God were to speak to me, fine. If not, I was content to rest in his love.
* * *
And he did speak that holiday, in fiction. Short story after story came, holy and mysterious, and I rapidly wrote them down. I told them to my husband and children; they got emotionally involved and totally drawn in. One was heart-breaking and ethically ambiguous, having come in a dream, and the children were outraged and saddened by it. I think the stories were lovely, and they came in their own tone and voice.
They belonged to a sort of dream-time, written in our camper van in Switzerland, Italy and France. I returned from holiday on August 15th, and I have not looked at them since.
What’s going on? Fear that they were not as good as I remembered? Interestingly though, letting first drafts sit is standard creative advice.
* * *
And now again on this holiday, short stories are coming, one or two or three a day, and I am rapidly writing them down.
Anyway, I need to have a plan if I am to finish in addition to my blog and my memoir. And part of having a plan is to have a trigger, a specific time/slot when I am going to write them.
So on my return from Tuscany, I am going to devote the first half-hour or so of the day to working on these stories. Quiet time, I will still have, even if I put it second; and the memoir, I am deep enough into that I will still write even if it’s in the semi-comatose last hour of the day.
And I might also work on my stories last thing at night for as long as my mind works. The writer Andrea Barrett once told me that her most creative times are first thing in the morning, and last thing at night.
So I might experiment with last thing at night, the sleepy, in-between phase, when the stern critic, the assaulter of creative work, is off dozing, and the muse appears, in her voluminous garments, and says, “Come, Dance.”
Anyway, enjoy images of Lucca which we visited last month. I particularly enjoyed walking around the city walls.
The Duomo (Cathedral)
San Michele in Foro