Categories
Uncategorized

Twenty Minute Liminality

 

Bridge from SeawaySince it wasn’t rush hour and the span over the St-Lawrence was clear, it took only twenty minutes to drive from my home in Verdun to where the steelwork and concrete delivered the little rent-by-the-hour Toyota containing my friend Sara and me into the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake (Kahnawà:ke). I’ve always found there to be something almost harsh about the Mercier Bridge. Despite being of similar construction it has none of the 19th century charm of the Victoria (a bridge my children used to call the “singing bridge” when they were little, for the hum of the tires on the steel tracks slung along its sides). Nor does the Mercier attempt the modernist concrete vision that first inspired and then doomed the grandly arching Champlain, finished in 1967 and already on life support. Where the Jacques Cartier Bridge meanders genteelly over roller coasters and parks, the Mercier seems more grimly pedestrian, even though actual pedestrians would be risking their lives to walk it.

Maybe it’s the way one is forced to drive the Montreal approach to the Mercier, encased in a graffiti-covered cement chute that twists and turns through barely glimpsed walls of duplexes until the roadway finally shoots you up and onto the steel. It’s really only as you near the bridge’s end that you realize how high you’ve come. And then, just as the Seaway glitters below you, you drop down the exit ramp to the erroneously named “south shore”, the car’s shocks pinging at potholes. Suddenly you’re in a land you didn’t realize was there, a strip of gas stations, restaurants, smoke shops and road-side businesses with signs in a language that seems to have too many consonants, apostrophes and syllables to make sense. This is not your land, you think. And you’re right.

The Mercier Bridge’s greatest shortcoming might be that, on a good day, it delivers you too quickly from one world to the next. From the thick stone walls of the centuries-old Roman Catholic mission among the Iroquois, through the Mohawk steel workers who were first trained on the bridge spans and went to American cities for work, through Indian residential schools and the riots and blockades and soldiers and warriors of the late summer and fall of 1990, there are stories to be told about every foot of the transition between shore-lines. When traffic is light the stories flit by like the shadows between girders, far too quickly even to be heard, much less really heard, which is to say, to be felt and understood.

In June Sara and I will be leading a group of walking pilgrims from Old Montreal to Kahnawake as part of the pilgrimage class we’ve developed at the Department of Theological Studies, Concordia University. Each year the students have had to walk a pilgrimage. While in the past we’ve focused on European routes, this year we’re sticking closer to home. In June we will walk the 30 km or so one-way route together. Although we are starting in the Old Port it won’t be a pilgrimage to Kahnawake (although such a pilgrimage does exist, centred on the shrine of the Mohawk Saint Kateri). Instead we hope our June walk will be an experiencing of the full distance – cultural, temporal, linguistic, historical, and spiritual – between two poles: Old Montreal, one of the hearts of Champlain’s dream of French settlement in this part of North America, now a gentrified example of Quebecois North American culture, and Kahnawake, a territory of the Mohawk, part of the historic Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Each end of this walk has its own understandings of, and traditions around, journey. We hope that by taking our time along the distance between those understandings and experiences of mobility this summer, the stories will unfold at a pace we can hear as well.

This morning when Sara and I arrived by car in Kahnawake, we realized fairly quickly that our maps were not going to be of much use. There were no street signs to be found, anywhere in the village. “Why do you need street signs?” someone said to us when we asked, with a gentle lifting of the shoulders and the trace of a smile. “Everyone who needs to know where they’re going already knows how to get there.”

This summer we hope that we too will learn, together and footfall by footfall, where we are going, and how to get there.

The heart of Kahnawake

Categories
Uncategorized

Winter Walking

img_3002.jpg

I love a public road: few sights there are

That please me more – such object has had power

O’er my imagination since the dawn

Of childhood, when its disappearing line

Seen daily afar off, on one bare steep

Beyond the limits which my feet had trod,

Was like a guide into eternity,

At least to things unknown and without bound.

                                                                                                            Wordsworth

 

 

The snow is falling. Ice has formed on the sidewalks and walking is becoming, if not impossible, at least treacherous. My 4 km path from home to office has been transformed into an obstacle course. Not so much harder, I guess, than some of the summer’s more difficult wanderings, but requiring much sturdier dress. And even in its warmth, the city was harsher than Norway and Scotland’s hedgerows and mountain trails. There are no wild flowers along the way, no trout rising in any stream through Verdun, no herons kicking into the air to greet my passing. Now there are gusts of needle-sharp air around the frozen concrete corners of walk-ups. There is the way the wind plays a winter song on the wires, calling the pigeons out to find the bread crumbs someone left on the snow. And there is N-, the homeless man on the bench he stubbornly, nonsensically prefers to a warm bed, his nose dripping even as he speaks to me in the most reasonable, cultured, and educated of tones about his degree in English literature. “I can’t leave,” he tells me, “they asked me to be here in this place when they come, which should be any day now.” He shifts his legs and adjusts the plastic bags around him. I look at his boots. Such is mental illness. But then, it was a kind of rootlessness I aspired to not many months ago. I buy him snow pants and worry about him on nights like last night, when it drops to 28 below. I think of my sons and know he is someone’s. Calling the police is an option.

There is garbage in the gutter, the smell of oil and tomato sauce unexpectedly tinging the vacuum of air behind the pizzeria, the hiss of the plastic Frosty the Snowman who lifts out of his inner tube once every thirty seconds as the air pump builds him again and again to greet a street that is empty except for me. Later a car rolls slowly by, a foreign creature, windows shadowed, the sound of its tires compressing the snow loud in my ears, muffled bass beating like a heart buried deep within.

Peregrination seems far away from this winter world. Against the cold and dark of the city, life has settled into whatever warm niches it can find, leaving little above the surface. But there is life nevertheless. Different eyes are needed for walking this way, different rhythms to keep from falling on this pilgrim route. There is a different loneliness and a different cost.  In my doorway I take off my gloves and the back of my hands is red and raw, the skin threatening to break open from dryness. The only hand cream I can find stings.

 A Verdun Christmas 2012

 

 

 

Categories
Uncategorized

Going Nowhere Fast

Blake's pilgrim sketch

By about 2 pm on the first day of walking through the Scottish Borders it was becoming clear I’d been wrong imagining the dots on my map to be quant Scots villages full of local eccentrics, well-crafted beer and heavy, happy northern food. The two areas of settlement I’d passed were small clusters of squat and shuttered houses, grey sandstone window frames, darkened slate roofs and doorways offering no welcome. They were perhaps bedroom communities for Edinburgh. Whatever they were, they were barely inhabited: there would be no conversation of any sort, quaint or otherwise. Likewise no cafe or store to pick up lunch.

Long-distance walking into unknown or lesser-known territory means reaching a series of decisions without full information. You expect to make some mistakes, and hope they’re neither major nor cumulative. You trust to luck and the kindness of others, if others happen by. Going a bit hungry your first day isn’t the worst that can happen – by far – although in that moment my stomach didn’t necessarily agree.

What was worrying was that it was already the middle of the afternoon, and my guidebook told me I had 15 or so kilometers still to walk before arriving at a closed tourist centre from which I might, if everything worked, be able to contact a ride to come pick me up for my hostel. All of which probably meant a very late meal indeed, should there be anything to be purchased at all by the time I got there. In the bottom of my pack I found the broken remains of a two-day old baguette given to me in London, and some packaged cheese I had forgotten to throw out. The cheese was long past sweating, but my hunger convinced me it might still be okay despite hours in the heat.

Dryburgh Abbey was further off the route than I had expected, a set of foundation stones and half-walls all that remains of an important medieval structure. The detour had already cost me a couple of kilometers and an hour or so and my feet, unhappy with asphalt, needed liberation from the boots. So I took them off, set my socks in the sun and stretched out my toes.

Where we choose to sit and eat can say a lot about us. There was a bench on the grass beside a very low stone wall with a plaque that read “transept side altar”. Barefoot before the altar, feeling the grass between my toes, squinting at where the monks would have filed out from their dormitory to perform the first office of the day, I felt more at home than I had in days. The river Tweed flowing slowly by, the sweat-sweet wetness of my tee-shirt drying on my back in the yellow sun, my stomach happy for, literally, crumbs: part of the joy of walking pilgrimage is the re-sizing of what is needed in life. Even home is re-defined, a sacred flagstone to sit my plastic bag on, in that moment, was enough.

Maybe it has always been so, but it seems to me that the starting point for modern Euro-North American pilgrimage is almost never a sacred destination. The starting point is somewhere and everywhere along the unfamiliar trail, in the awkward freedom of being able to go left or right and not knowing exactly which is best or how long to tarry, in the slowness of footfalls in a motorized world, and in the unfamiliar Google-free uncertainty of a path where the next way-sign might be knocked down or misleading and the next person encountered might forever remain a stranger or perhaps become a dear companion. The world shrinks and expands at the same time: we smell the greenness in whole fields of clover, feel each raindrop in a translucent summer shower, and curse the nail clippers we forgot to put in the Velcro pouch under the flap of our bags, or the single black seed pod that, rolling beneath the sock, turns to a blister on our foot. I ate in a hurry, packed up and walked quickly back over the bridge, striding back onto the path.

One of Blake’s drawings shows a pilgrim striding purposefully forward, walking stick in hand, much as I was walking toward my unknown future. At Blake’s destination awaits a monster, Death, whose maw is the final destination of no escape.

What if he is right?

I was not bereft; anyone who has a Visa card and money in their wallet, a mobile phone and a road nearby is never truly in danger. But I’m more and more convinced from my own experience and from talking to others that there is something in the practice of smallness and absence that is part of the appeal of modern walking pilgrimage. Something very powerful happens in practicing the stripping off of the layers of who we are and what we own. Maybe it simply gives us the chance to see what might be there, in us, at the nub.

In the last pages of Tomas Espedal’s ode to a vagrant life, “Tramp”, after all the poetry and late nights, the alcohol and the sex, the solitude, the philosophy and the history, he writes these words: “the path takes off to the right, through a wood, you cross an electric fence and suddenly find yourself in a clearing, you have to stop; I am brought to a halt by the sudden, soft light and the stillness.”

Maybe, I hope, that is what it might be, at the nub. That would be a nowhere to walk to, fast.

walking to Holy Island

Categories
Uncategorized

The Hidden Pilgrim

sunset in Budsjord
Our first night in the mountains of central Norway, we found ourselves in the absolutely idyllic Budsjord Gard, a small farm converted into a pilgrim and traveler centre. Centre is too grand a word: one of the buildings is a former horse stable where five beds are lined up in the five stalls. The night we stayed there our eldest traveling companion was put up in one of the former granges, where even short people have to stoop to go in the door, there are holes in the walls (a temperature problem on a very cold June night) and there is a nearly-foot wide gap between the entrance and top stone stair, a hole through which it would be a 2 meter fall to the ground below. The common bathroom is a renovated interior in an old building entered through a hobbit-sized door, where a bedrock piece of granite sticks up through part of the floor in front of the wash basin. Several of the buildings have the overgrown turf roofs typical of old Norwegian farm out-buildings. I absolutely loved the place.

Add to the charm of the scenery a wide-eyed young Norwegian woman who with breathless sweetness told us that it was her first day on the job and we were her first pilgrims, and a one-armed and grizzled German pilgrim who arrived mid-way through out meal, asked for food and lodging and told us, wiping the sweat from his brow with his stump as he ate his supper that he was a former marathon runner and on the St-Olaf way was averaging 25 miles a day through the mountains. Especially impressive given that the range is traversed with swollen spring streams. Between the German’s lively and intelligent face and the almost unbelievable open-eyed innocence of the hostess it was all I could do to wait until the poor man had eaten to pull out my camera and ask them both for interviews.

I asked all the usual questions of the German pilgrim. Despite his obvious intensity and the wonderful character evident in his face, I was a bit disappointed with what I got: a listing of distances, mostly. I put away the camera.

Later, I bumped into the German outside the washroom. He motioned to me. “Listen,” he said to me in his half-English, half-German. “I didn’t say this inside. But I have another reason for going on this pilgrimage. I am walking 500 km to find out if God exists.” What I was thinking was: why does this always happen? But I fought the urge to go get my equipment. Not entirely happy, I just stayed put and listened. “34 years ago,” he said, “there was a young man – me – who had an accident and was – how do you say it – not with it, with life I mean. Out of life for three days. I was between death and life, and somehow I came back to life. Now I want to know why. Now I walk to find out if there is a God and if God brought me back as an accident, or for some reason.” “Do you want to tell me that on camera?” I ask him. “No.” he says, “But I want you to know.”