Harold Fry, Walter Mitty and Me

I am a pilgrim at heart.

One of my earliest memories is of my dad coming to say goodbye to 4 or 5 year old me in the dark hours of the morning as he headed off on a business trip to a magical, faraway place called Switzerland. That seemed to me to be a lot like Disneyland but for grownups.

I can still smell his cologne, feel his freshly shaven face on mine as he whispered his love and promised soon to return, and I knew the black fancy car was already out front waiting to whisk him away to the airport and off to his adventure. More than anything in the world, I wanted to go too.

The urge to travel, or more specifically, to journey, I am sure is etched deep in my DNA, and throughout the years of my life I have traveled as time, opportunity and good fortune have permitted.books

I have been transported by the requisite trains, planes and automobiles. I have traveled on foot, by bike, by boat and, dare I admit it, even in my imagination, but some of my favorite journeys have been by way of books and the millisecond frames of provocative films. My own story seemed best told as a pilgrimage, a travelogue of interior places, even though physically I rarely left the confines of my living room. The Spirit, however, seems uniquely undeterred by what we think of as boundaries of time and space. The world of the psalms, I discovered, was a place where past, present and future were all accessible, where physical space dissipated in ways that defied explanation, where the longest, most arduous portions of my journey were mysteriously begun and completed in the span of a few silent, still, knee-bent hours.

And so it should come as no great surprise that when my family made a bee-line for the Waterstone bookstore that was a mere stones throw from our Trafalgar flat last week, I hiked up my skirts and joined the mad dash. It should come as no further surprise that the book I selected and started thumbing through on the walk back, nose book-ward and thus running into people and trees, was aptly titled, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. The book tells the story of a simple English man, a few years into retirement, who sets out one day — in yachting shoes and a slight jacket — to walk down the lane and post a letter to a dying friend, and ends up walking the entire way across England to deliver the letter in person. His motivations are breathtaking — simple, painful, archetypal — and like most motivations for most of us, they are inaccessible to him until he actually begins to walk. It is in the walking, in the hunger of journeying, the leaving behind and the stepping forward one foot after the other, that he matures, a process that begins with a wrenching self-knowledge and ends with self-offering and joyful abandon.

I finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage somewhere over Greenland. The plane was dark, most were asleep, and I felt an exquisite sadness that there was no one else on that plane who knew Harold Fry, no one with whom I could reflect upon his well-traveled road. I blew my nose and dried my tears, sat for a spell in the dark, and pondered it all. Finally, feeling somewhat blue at having to say goodbye to Harold, I decided to see if there were any movies worth watching.secret_life_of_walter_mitty_ver7

My sister-in-law had posted on Facebook a few days earlier that she and my brother had immensely enjoyed the movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and seeing it there on the console I pushed ‘select’ and settled in to see what it was that captured Joe and Camille’s affection.

To my surprise and delight, Walter Mitty — like Harold Fry, like me — is a pilgrim.   I won’t spoil the movie for anyone interested, but suffice it to say that Walter, like Harold, can’t entirely figure out exactly how he ended up in the life he’s got. In his imagination, Walter is a different sort of person living a different sort of life, a life diametrically opposed to the real one he finds himself occupying. In the beginning, his journeying is all in his imagination, but as the film unfolds we realize that Walter’s imaginary life has imperceptibly done a deep work in Walter, enabling him to take an actual journey in the real world — a pilgrimage by plane and helicopter, by skateboard and bicycle, in the company of drunks and gurus and in the end, entirely alone. He traverses continents, runs toward active volcanoes, travels backwards in time to his childhood, and forward into an unknown future by way of relationships. In the end, Walter — like Harold, like me — is made new by his quest which began in imagination, was fueled by hope and hunger, and resolved ultimately in a quiet assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.

Perhaps all pilgrimages are ultimately about faith.

Abigail: A Sketch

I have long been captivated by the biblical character, Abigail.abigail2-1

You can read her story in 1 Samuel 25.  As a writer, I sometimes obsessively try to put blood and breath in these characters, particularly the women who, frankly, we tend to read rather two-dimensionally and usually through the frame of Western freedoms and virtues. Case and point, you’d be shocked at how many extra-biblical narratives about Abigail wonder why she would marry such a man as Nabal. One grows weary trying to explain that women choosing whom to marry and anyone marrying for love is a strictly modern phenomenon.

In this fictional piece, I try to imagine what Abigail might have been like. The text says she is “intelligent and beautiful” and married to a man who’s name is given as “Fool” so we are also likely dealing with a few archetypal elements here in addition to an historical narrative. Here I play, respectfully, with who she might have been and how her character might have shaped the choices she made and the ways God intervened in her circumstances.  I would love to hear how you read Abigail!

(a sketch)

Bartered by men like a prized cow, sold in marriage to a rich man offering a price my father could not refuse. Blessed with beauty and intelligence, they say. Ha! They are all fools, for it is a double curse. Had I been ugly, Nabal would not have wanted me. Had I been stupid, I would not have understood the price I would pay for his lust. What a magnificent waste.

So here I am, wealthy beyond measure, executor of Nabal’s vast estate, responsible for the well-being of these men, women and children who are beholden to my husband for their bread and for their bed. Fool that he is, without me here they would surely die, or worse. Fool that he is, he doesn’t care for anything but his purse. His servants are indistinguishable from his goats and his wife no more – or less – valuable than his prized sheep. Would that he could shear me and get a handsome price for my hide, but that of course would deprive him of, shall we say, other pleasures.

Don’t pity me. I am not unique. My sisters have always known the punishment for having been born a woman – our life is not our own. If not Nabal, then some other man to own me. Indeed, I am one of the lucky ones, with a husband who demands only my body on occasion, and otherwise leaves me free to do as I please. It is funny, really, that Nabal doesn’t realize what goes on here, under his own nose. Poor, stupid Nabal married me of all women, impressed with my beauty but oblivious to my capability.

Don’t look at me like that. I see it in your eyes. You feel sorry for me. Don’t. You don’t understand me at all. Why shouldn’t I be married to Nabal? You waste my time and yours on sentiment and romance. Would I have been happier married to a good man, a kind man, however unable he was to match me in passion, intellect and competence? You are mistaken if you think the answer is yes. The only marriage I’d find remotely interesting is a union of equals, but we all know this is not how a man chooses a wife. Of course, a good man may choose a virtuous wife. Or a woman he hopes will bear him many sons. Maybe he’ll choose a wife because she lets him play the man, or she comes with a substantial bride price. Or perhaps he’ll choose her because she is skilled in the uniquely feminine arena of flattery and allure. But a man who would choose a wife because she is his equal? I do not believe such a man exists on earth.

So I say, do not feel sorry for me. Yes, I am married to a fool. But God is good and there is work for me here – God-given, honorable work – and I am grateful for it. For as long as Nabal lives, I will serve him as my husband and I will use every resource at my disposal to care for the ones he overlooks, trods upon, ignores and wastes. If not me, then who?