Pilgrims and Pilgrimages

I just got a notice on Facebook that I’ve been approved for a group called “American Pilgrims on the Camino,” though I’d never requested to join, never even knew there was such a group. I do know that El Camino de Santiago is the name of the pilgrimage route(s) to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Many people make the pilgrimage for religious or spiritual reasons, but others have a more secular agenda, such as an adventure or challenge.

desertThe first I’d heard of The Camino came from a women I walk with who mentioned that she wanted to do it. It seemed quite romantic, this pilgrimage, even for a non-believer, but the truth is, any hike I do is by way of a pilgrimage. Walking for me is not a sport, not an endurance test. It’s a way of connecting to the outer world as well as a way of exploring my inner world.

Christine Valters Paintner wrote: “I am captivated by the image of pilgrimage as a metaphor for our human journeying. Not just the physical journeys we make to outward places, but to the interior places of the heart, the new landscapes we are called to explore. Can we allow our own trajectories to be oriented in a new direction? Often the call arrives to our own lives unbidden. Something happens which we did not expect and we need to shift our perspective to open our eyes to this new possibility.”

I feel the call, but I don’t know what is calling me or what I’m being called to do. It certainly has come unbidden, this pull toward adventure, but I am opening my eyes to new possibilities. It seems as if the whole world is out there for the taking if I only have the courage to grab it.

I doubt the Camino is in my future. Although travelers rhapsodize about crossing a lower ridge of the Pyrenees, walking on farm roads through areas of rolling vineyards and crossing several mountain passes, and tramping through the forested river valleys of Galicia, the truth is that much of the Camino is paved, and is better suited to bicycling. In some ways, such a pilgrimage would agree me because stores and inns line much of the road enabling me to carry a light pack, but it seems silly to travel all the way to Spain for a pilgrimage when I can do something even more spiritually rewarding here in the USA.

Still, for now, I’ll keep my membership in The Camino group. I could end up doing almost anything, including making such a trip. Or I could end up just making small pilgrimages. After all, there are dance classes to consider, and dance is a pilgrimage in itself.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Dancing My Way Out of Grief

Today was a particularly intense day for me at the dance studio. I took three classes. Ballet, which wants to twist my body in ways it wasn’t meant to go. Advanced tap, where I am totally out of my depth. And advanced jazz, which wasn’t hard, just exhausting.

The difficulty of the day, particularly tap, which is hard enough for me at a beginner’s level but confusingly difficult in a more advanced class, reminded me of my first days at the studio. I started out with jazz, not knowing what to expect, not knowing I would fall in love with dance and end up taking all possible classes. Since I had no background in dance, and since the group had been together for quite a while before I joined, I was more or less just dumped in the middle of a dance and told to follow along as best as I could until the teacher could find time to work with me. I tried to emulate the others, but even the simplest steps were beyond me. But I practiced. And I learned. Even more importanjazz shoest, I learned how to learn to dance, which is vastly different from learning how to learn academic subjects. (Knowing how to learn is the key to learning, as I’m sure you know.) With more cerebral pursuits, you only have to put your mind in gear. With physical lessons, you have to put your body, mind, and soul into the experience, and once I’d learned to walk, I never had to put that much effort into learning physical things for the simple reason that I had no interest in such matters.

Last summer, before I started taking dance classes, I’d gone on excursions, traveled, visited museums, and did whatever I could to get myself to look more to the present and future rather than back at the past, but I was still subject to upsurges in grief. I was happy enough while doing such things, but as soon as they were over, the sadness descended once again. Dance was the first thing I did that rippled into subsequent days, probably because it was so difficult, all-consuming, and exciting, and it brought me to life.

Learning is my talent, my joy, the thing that makes life worth living, and dance plays into that aptitude for learning since as soon as I learn one step or one dance, there is another one to learn. Even more than that, dance helped push aside the physical memories of my shared life with my soul mate.

When someone close to you dies, especially someone whose life is connected to yours on a profound level, you remember him not just with your mind but with your body. So often, when anniversaries came around, such as the anniversary of his cancer diagnosis or the anniversary of our last kiss, I didn’t remember the day, but my body did. Visiting art museums, reading, writing, walking, helped push the mental memories of him into the far reaches of my mind, but until I began to learn how to dance, there was nothing to distance the body memories.

To a great extent, dance is about body memory. If you have to pay attention to every move you’ve learned instead of letting your body remember, you lose the rhythm of the dance as well as any nuance, and chances are, you’d lose the sense of the movement itself. (For example, in ballet class a couple of days ago, we were trying to figure out why my body wouldn’t do what the steps required it to do, and at one point, the teacher stood behind me, put her hands on my shoulders to feel my movements, and told me to walk. I couldn’t move — for that moment, I forgot how to walk. I was trying to remember in my mind how to walk rather than remembering with my body.)

It’s no surprise that some of my classmates have also suffered a severe loss, whether the death of a husband or a horrendous divorce. For us, dance is not just something fun to do, but a pilgrimage to the far reaches of our new lives.

I’ve come a long way in the year since I showed up for my first dance class. I know more than a dozen dances, know all sorts of different steps and combinations, know that no matter how hard a dance is, I will learn it.

And most of all, I know I am alive.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.