Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Perpetual Advent

Part I.

"One thing you must know is that in the South there is a story for everything." He leaned in warmly, eyes alight, and I caught myself smiling back, perched expectantly on the edge of the white, linen covered sofa. I slid my finger rhythmically around the base of the wine glass in my hands as he proceeded to launch into a tale about the fireplace...and eventually the chairs and the baby grand piano. Suddenly their histories became alive, knit with interesting characters, amusing coincidences, and notes of sentiment. They described it so elegantly as being "wrapped up in a whole constellation of emotions and memory". Two Alabaman transplants were about to sell the house they had called home for the majority of my life span, and here, for maybe a final time, they were smiling over narratives with new company.

Early on I was pleased to have noticed this culture of storytelling, but I was never quite certain if it was a happy accident due to my theatrical coworkers. They possess the delivery, timing, and voices to brilliantly tell a good story. Almost as much as I love absorbing these stories I want to learn how to tell them like they do.

I've stood in crowded rooms with them as they have explained connections and relayed anecdotes in low voices about characters standing across the room. I've absorbed tales of history and travel and attended dinners around intimate tables with Southerners discussing Southern Gothic, their "culture of storytelling", and eccentric neighbors. (How I wish I could have lunch with Flannery O'Connor.) We've shared our experiences of Rome and Palladian villas looking out across green, Italian hillsides, and those English Gothic cathedrals that bring out sighs at the mention of their very names. Once we gathered around on couches and soft rugs in the office to hear working chapters for a new book be read aloud. Miraculously, I've been able to bond over a love of writing.

Writing has always been a constant in my life. There is something endlessly fascinating about forming ideas into something a little more tangible. If nothing else, it makes for dependable catharsis. There are many poor sketchbooks and scraps of trace I've cluttered with words instead of drawings, and class notes halted with staggered pages of (at best) tangential thought. Architecture school always seemed to disapprove of writing, and it was rare and exciting to be encouraged in the impulsive habit. But I've found encouragement in odd places along the way, and amazingly continue to do so in the professional world. 

I've wondered how to describe my time in Alabama, how to share an experience now familiar to me but mysterious to others. If it weren't so banal I would say it's about the curtains of Spanish moss and uneven, hexagonal pavers between work and my apartment. Or how to arrive here you honestly take any road called "south". Or how sometimes, yes, the air outside smells like fried chicken. Regardless, the stories are omnipresent and the characters hardly lack drama.

Part II. 

"In the morning let me know your love 
for I put my trust in you. 
Make me know the way I should walk,
to you I lift up my soul." 
- Tuesday compline, Psalm 143


"What am I doing wrong?" I thought as I stared at the blank, white ceiling as two German girls cheerfully gathered up their things and began to set out for the day with the other pilgrims. I felt that same feeling that occurs after lying down in bed following sleepless nights in Bond; it was the feeling of a giant magnet in the earth's core pulling my bones painfully down through my body by the power of gravity. It hurt to lie down, it hurt to sit up, my breathing was heavy, and my throat was burning. What am I doing wrong? I recalled several friends who had smiled and simply said the Camino was a great experience, sparing, apparently, all gory details of desiring to amputate one's own toes. Had they too encountered bronchitis in the albergues? Had they developed blisters this badly? The previous afternoon I had walked the last 100 meters barefoot because it was less painful without shoes. Being on the road early in the morning was my favorite part of the day, but there were mornings of exhaustion and emotional distress when I awoke asking myself: How am I going to walk 15 miles today? It became a kind of mantra and a metaphor, even beyond the summer, when I felt I couldn't continue. How am I going to walk 15 miles today?


Stairs entering Portomarin
Villafranca was the worst morning, however. Once we reached Sarria my body would have adjusted and even heavy lungs from bronchitis would seem insignificant. In fact, as we passed through the enchantingly beautiful forests of Galicia, I suddenly lost all awareness of my feet and consciousness of pain. I almost believed I had floated there. We passed through cathedrals of eucalyptus with carpets of dense ferns, and there you could feel only wonder. Time and place ceased to be as well. Life before the Camino felt like a dream and the thought of life after it seemed equally unlikely. 

At the start, around midday of June 1st, I found myself begging aloud for someone to tell a story because I didn't know what to do with myself and the silence. I announced to my brother I now fully understood why Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. You could talk to those around you, you could silently pray, but you could not escape an overwhelming silence disturbed only by an overactive mind. Still, I refrained from iPods and earbuds except when distraction was absolutely necessary to keep going. People say the Camino presents different trials to different people, and mine was certainly a challenge of both endurance and surrender.




The Benedictine Order seemed to follow us like a shadow; they were always the ones to provide compline or sacraments or housing along the Way, to the point where it seemed spurred on by divine humour. It was from them that I heard the words that resonated in my mind: "Walk light and carry few things. Let God be God." Often something wouldn't go as planned and sacrifices had to be made, even after arriving in Santiago. My brother left the same day we arrived due to an early flight so I was left alone in Santiago de Compostela for three days. I liked the idea of going to Finisterre, the optional extension of the Camino at the ocean's edge where pilgrims burn their clothes and possessions in bonfires at sunset as a final act of detachment. However, I was still sick, it was cold and raining, and I was ill-equipped to continue. It was then that I realized how attached I was to this idea. So, I abandoned it immediately.

In Praise of Porticos
Rain, rain, go away,
Come again never.
Call it morbid or melancholic, but I had a keen sensation of approaching death as we neared the end of the journey. It was a goodbye and goodbyes habitually remind me of mortality. Our last night before entering the city I caught sight of the sun setting over Santiago de Compostela as we walked back to the albergue from dinner. I exclaimed and took off running barefoot through thistles to see it better from the hill in Monte del Gozo. I hadn't felt such simultaneous sadness and beauty since looking out over a decayed but oddly romantic Havana.

The next morning contained all the anticipation of Christmas Day. We woke up early in the cold and the splatter of rain meant little to my excitement. The morning was grey and solemn, quieter than all the others, shrouded in heavy fog and mist. It was poetic that we were closer than ever to our destination but it was perfectly hidden from view; and I had the vision of the sunset over the city in my mind as we sped on toward what seemed unattainable. As we entered Santiago and glimpsed the towers I commented to my brother, "If I lived here I would sit outside every morning to watch the faces of the pilgrims arriving." Finally, the moment we had waited weeks for was here...but, although I was awed and excited upon reaching the cathedral, it felt strangely empty. We arrived from the back and the square in front was vacant; I was shivering from the cold as I gawked at the baroque facade hidden under scaffolding. I was imagining the homecoming of St. Peter's Square, a family reunion of the Pilgrim Church on Earth. It was emotional, however, to enter and embrace in the apostle, attend the Mass, and spend much time in quiet contemplation. Over the next three days I ran into friends along the street, hugging strangers, both welcoming and parting with a bittersweet foretaste of a heavenly homecoming. I heard a man call out in the street to another pilgrim, "Buon Camino - forever!"  


Part III.

"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." - T.S. Eliot

Just as post-grad had started to become bleak again, I found myself once more around a Southern dinner table with the happiest of company, shedding tears from breathless laughter. The stories were endless and absurd, bringing out the hardest laughs and causing minor injuries for the storyteller (who ended up icing a bruised hand). Our host led us in grace before dinner, asking God to help us recognize Him and bring His beauty into our creative work so we might better reflect His goodness, and gave a reassuring, tight squeeze of my hand. Hours passed with wine, wit, and hilarity. It must have been what the Spanish call sobremesa. It is nights like these when everything reaffirms that I am exactly where I should be. I only wish I could share these moments with the friends who I know would enjoy every second of it as much as I do. I found myself wondering why no one else has discovered this. Have they been turned away by the thought of Alabama? They would love it though; they would love this. The joy in our community was contagious and I wanted it to be. 

It is a strange thing to be content and longing at the same time. The world is thy ship and not thy home, etc. etc. One night as the moon, though only a crescent, somehow looked too heavy for the sky, I drove home reflecting how I've grappled with "calm turmoil" for a year. That rare, bizarre feeling of peace while remaining the opposite of complacent, it is brought on by longing yet knowing that all is right for the moment and will be in the end. As I was reminded on the Camino, "You know where you are going, you just have to get there." The "getting there" can seem like an eternity. We walk a perpetual advent, a continual arrival, often as exhausted and irritable pilgrims turned speechless at mountains and awed by forests. It demands a perfection of patience. I've heard, however, that the journey makes for a good story.