Monday, January 12, 2015

To Take a Pilgrimage Part 2

I planned on writing this when I got back from my trip, but I’ve been putting it off because I honestly don’t know what to say. I’m not a professional blogger or anything, so I don’t really have any responsibility to write it, but…you know…I title something “part 1” and I expect myself to eventually write “part 2.” So I guess here we go?

It was weird. The entire trip leading up to my train stop at Seascale, I kind of forgot I had started off on a pilgrimage. I was just going for it, and quite honestly I was having to go on a day-to-day basis, not thinking too much about what was going to happen next, because I just had to be where I had to be and I had to be there on time and in between being in those places I had to make my time in these foreign countries count.

So while I was in Copenhagen, I thought about Copenhagen. All I saw was Copenhagen and how beautiful and sprawling and old it was. When I was in Berlin all I thought about was Berlin – noticed that so much of the architecture was so much newer than in Uppsala or Copenhagen, thought “I’m not a fan,” then realized that so much was new because so much had been destroyed in World War II. When I was in Berlin, I only saw those museums – the chunks of the wall scattered around the city, the still-standing Checkpoint Charlie. When I was in Amsterdam I was half asleep because I’d been sleeping on trains and in train stations for the past two nights, so I only saw Amsterdam but in a way I saw through it, too, like one might see through a ghost. I saw the unbelievably long line to the Anne Frank House and thought I could handle it but after an hour realized I was only in the city for a day so I hopped on a boat and traveled to the van Gogh museum – and I saw van Gogh’s letters to his family. I saw his beautiful paintings and drawings and I stood there in the room with them – with these beautiful pieces of history turned out by van Gogh’s own hand. I stood in the room with his palette, smeared with oils that dried over a hundred years ago.

Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin

In the morning I walked refreshed from the hostel to the train station and I saw the red lights illuminating the early morning windows in the red light district – a couple of men stopping to watch a near-naked woman apply lipstick inside a brothel’s store-front window. When I was in London I saw only the gardens that used to be cemeteries, the graves so degraded that the names on the stones were utterly illegible, if they even remained. I saw only the inside of the café where I sat to recharge my phone, rest my feet, drink some coco and write a short story. I saw only the British Library with its exhibition of “Treasures of the Library” that included ancient manuscripts from Hindu, Buddhist, Muslin, Jewish and Christian traditions and more – medieval texts and maps and an old globe meticulously painted with the constellations, to name just a few.

St. George's Garden was one of the first cemeteries in London
which existed on a property separate from the church.

When I was on the train from London to Seascale, I finally remembered that I was on a pilgrimage. But I was still too tired to feel much emotionally or spiritually. What I felt was tired and achy. Between London and Seascale I was back to sleeping on trains and in train stations and, just in case you were unaware, that is hardly the best way to get a good rest. It is true that your body adapts after a fashion: even for someone like me, who has been riddled with sleeping difficulties for as long as I can remember, I got to a point where I fell asleep much faster than I do under normal circumstances. Under normal circumstances and on a good night it takes me around thirty minutes to fall asleep – more often it takes in the area of an hour, and often enough upwards of that. I got to a point on the trains that I was falling asleep within five minutes, my backpack tucked under my legs and my purse tucked under my arm between me and the window, but I could never sleep deeply. I was wary of missing my stop, or of having my things stolen – though most of the trains I was on I shared with only a few other people, as I was traveling at odd hours.

In addition to being truly exhausted, pretty much everything hurt. If I but specifically my feet were more used to walking many multiple miles a day it would have been okay – hell, me being me, if I had been able to go barefoot I would have been better off. (In case you’re new to the life of Tahni: I hate wearing shoes.) By the time my train rolled into Seascale my feet were covered with blisters, especially my little toes which seem to like to hide just under the toe next to them. They were swollen and white with blisters, and my feet generally ached from being trapped in my shoes for so long. At the hostel in Amsterdam I had bandaged my feet and since then I had taken to removing my shoes while I slept on the trains, but it still wasn’t enough for them to heal.

Of course all of this I absolutely did to myself. I made decisions. I knew it was going to be rough. But I was trying to go cheaply and I was trying to see as much as I could in a very limited time span. And for some reason it makes sense to my mind that a pilgrimage should be…well…rough.

Until very recently in human history, if you were going on a pilgrimage anywhere, you were likely going on foot. If you were very well off, perhaps you were going by horse. So I guess there was a bit of me that didn’t want to lose all of the harshness of the pilgrimage experience to the comforts of modern technology (as though the harshness might make reaching the destination all the more worthy, all the more powerful) though my experience was still far easier than most pilgrims throughout history.

If all of that sounds like madness to you, it’s because it is. To explain it further, I will tell you this: a friend I made here in Uppsala recently looked at me and quite straight-faced said, “You are a glutton for punishment.” All I could say in response was “Well…yeah.” And that’s as much of an explanation as I am capable of providing you for why I chose to go about this adventure in the harshest way possible. That said, if I were to do it again, I would absolutely book a bed in a hostel every night, still taking the very late and very early trains but at least getting some real sleep in between. That was an awful thing I did to my body, and so I would like to formally apologize: Body, I am sorry. I am so sorry for what I have done. Now…can you please stop threatening me with a cold? K thanks.

As the train pulled into Seascale I perked up quite a bit. I’d gotten a couple hours of napping in so I had some energy and besides, the train was rolling along the seaside, and it was gorgeous – in that grey, tumultuous way you would expect the sea to be when you’re nearing Scotland.

 The view from the Seascale train stop. The town wasn't even
large enough to warrant a station.

Once off the train at Seascale it became very obvious to me that I was quite out of my element. For the most part in the cities I had been able to pass unnoticed, considering the huge populations. That was simply not the case in Seascale, which was clearly a tiny fraction of the population of the cities I’d been to.

Gosforth was even smaller. I do not kid and I do not exaggerate when I say I walked into the little convenience store (there was but one) which resided underneath the café (there was but one) and everyone clearly knew I wasn’t from around there. Every time someone new came through the door the others in the store greeted them with questions that weren’t quite as classic as “How’s the wife?” but was bordering on it. Gosforth was quite literally a little rural village on the border of Scotland, green and overcast and surrounded by wide expanses of rolling hills peppered with white-faced black sheep.

The walk to Gosforth: a stone barn among the fields.

I must have walked two miles from Seascale to Gosforth (there was a bus – I could not find it and was impatient), meandered into the convenience store to buy some beef pasties and a postcard for my nieces (and one for my self – one of only two souvenirs I got myself on the entire trip) and I asked where St. Mary’s was. The (really very sweet) young man behind the counter pointed me in the right direction and, hot pasties in hand, I headed off.

When I saw the church peeking up through the trees I wasn’t sure how to react. My reaction mostly consisted of a strangely hesitant “There it is.” I shoved my pasty in my mouth and continued forward.

Walking into the churchyard, I could see the Gosforth Cross standing to one side of the beautiful, old brick church but I didn’t want to approach it directly. I was almost afraid to approach it, actually – to come to the goal, to the point of the trip, to fulfill the spirit of the journey and not have it in front of me anymore. It felt so strange, and so much like the journey wasn’t over, that I walked the opposite way around the church. I wandered the churchyard that was crowded with old and new headstones, giving a very wide berth to the elderly couple in the middle of the yard placing flowers on a grave.

Finally I circled around and I approached the stone. Slowly. Pausing often to take a picture – of a strange tree, of an overgrown tomb. Until, finally, I was at its base – dropping my bag onto the damp grass and circling the tall, stone cross, squinting at the faded, lichen-colored carvings, seeking out Sigyn and Her Loki.

When I found Her I did something I imagine would have looked very strange had the elderly couple rounded the corner to see it: I climbed up on the square stone base, standing on tip toe and hugging the pillar with one arm, I reached up and pressed my hand against the carving. Nothing special or spectacular happened. I just touched the stone, and I was calm.
It's difficult to see, but this is the image of Sigyn
holding the bowl above Loki, to catch the venom from
the snake suspended above His head. 

I explained it in a letter to my nieces in this way: it’s not that I thought this stone or this site was particularly sacred. I believe every patch of earth is divine. It’s not that I thought this stone was any more special to Sigyn than my room in Uppsala. If everything is divine, then the divine is everywhere to behold. I can speak to Sigyn just as easily in Uppsala as I could in Gosforth, as I have in the United States. But this stone is the only image I know of that was carved at a time that the old gods were still being worshipped – a time, actually, of great change as people began to convert to Christianity while still holding on to their old deities and traditions. This image was meticulously carved into this stone by hands whose owner very likely believed in the figures he carved. Hands a thousand years removed from mine, hands who believed in this goddess and this god, wrought their image in a stone pillar which represents that transition from the old religion to the new – from the pagan to Christian.

And that is why I wanted to go there, to see this stone. And that is why I was grateful for the chance to lay my hand on the worn grooves that form that image. If that doesn’t make sense, if that doesn’t resonate with anyone else, that’s quite alright – everyone else can be quite content in the knowledge that I had the most amazing journey on the way, and that once I arrived at the stone, once I’d laid my hand on the image of Sigyn and Loki, I was able to sit down, stretch my legs out in front of me, lean back against the stone, close my eyes and just listen.

I sat there in the crowded churchyard, just listening, just being calm, just feeling the peace and quiet that I’ve only ever found deep, deep in the forest – or among the dead. I sat there and I appreciated it – I felt filled with appreciation, in fact. Filled with gratitude for everything that I’d seen thus far but also for the peace and the quiet and the solitude of this place. And for the sturdy stone at my back – the stone stretching toward the sky, burrowing into the earth. Firm. Solid. Resolute. Standing for a thousand years.

I sat there and was grateful, and filled with the subtle, quiet kind of love I’ve come to associate with my quiet goddess. I sat there until it started to rain. Then I pulled up my hood, stood, gathered my things, left a small offering, and went to find a bus stop.

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