Needless to say this morning we woke early, just before the songbirds and the first light of dawn. Given the cold-hard-tiles and the dogs baying all night beneath a big round moon, I was surprised I slept at all. Surprised further still to realise it was easier to get moving this morning than previous mornings, when most often I felt like a bandy-legged cement gnome getting out of bed.
Well before sunrise we were on the road again, mixing it with the workday commuters. So far, I have identified four kinds of people on the road - those who don’t see us, those who do and wish they hadn’t, those who see us with the air of the curious, the confused or the hostile and those who recognise us. The latter toot. They wave. They laugh and smile. A tractor driver took his hands off the wheel and clapped with glee. Fellow pilgrims sharing the journey, each in their own way.
The first light of sun touches the mountains. It’s a glorious morning and a beautiful time to be on the road. Sun flashes silver on the silver birch. Roosters crow from distant hilltops. We turn a corner and morning streams up the valley. The traffic is ceaseless. It’s an odd situation for the quick-reflexed, such as myself; laden down as I am by 20kgs I haven’t a hope in Hades of getting out of the way of anything quickly. I am, therefore, learning the art of thoughtful response to life and (imminent) death. Walk out on the road where they can see me, for example, as in this way I’m in a position to take a slow step sideways while the wheeled ones will make an effort to drive around. Trucks get a different thoughtful response altogether: press as closely as possible to retaining wall and pray they’ll appreciate my thoughtfulness. Right-hand curves and left-hand curves are a toss-up. Right-hand curves run the risk of cars taking them too fast and so slamming into me and the wall. Left-hand curves carry the novelty of making me invisible for all but the split second before they see me. Meanwhile Ben, with 2000 pilgrim miles up his sleeve, walks on with pilgrim’s purpose; they see him, he sees them and each to their own path. Life on the road. Literally.
And every now and then there’s a break in the traffic and the stillness of the mountains is breathtaking. I look up at the wooded forests and if there’s not boar in them now, there surely was once. A lifetime ago I was a hunter, for three years in the wild places of New Zealand. Meat for the family table. I raise my eyes into the clear-morning mountain light and my heart quickens, remembering what it was to follow the tracks of the wild boar through the beauty of the forest underbelly.
Soon we begin to climb again . . . uh-oh. Straight up. Steep. Hot. Exhausting. No breakfast . . . okay, a few bites of last night’s leftover pizza. Arsoli is another of those towns it would be easy to fall off. I think to myself I wouldn’t want to raise a baby here. We reach the top and collapse in a corner of another bar. This one doesn’t sell toasted ham and cheese sandwiches. It sells pastries. And Powerade, which is fast becoming my drink of choice. I’m rapidly losing interest in pasta, pizza and pastries. Have I mentioned I’m rapidly losing interest in pasta, pizza and pastries?
Sadness begins to descend and before long my spirit tumbles off the heights of Arsoli. We set up camp for a couple of hours in a little square and I take off my boots. Fortunately for me the blister on my little toe burst as I took off its bandaid, sparing me the decision about whether or not to pop it. My little toe was so sore, so blistered, so agonisingly red raw. Unlike Ben, I’m not committed to walking all the way. I’m here for the ride, to share this leg of his journey, happy to partake of some of the agony and lots of the fun. Not here to torture myself. And so we agreed I would take the train to Avezzona and meet Ben there tomorrow . . . or the day after.
We parted company at the station. It wasn’t easy, because this next leg of the walk would take him through deserted forest roads. No traffic. Pilgrim heaven on Earth. I sat at the deserted railway station feeling somewhat like the station itself – not quite abandoned. Loneliness pulls into the station. It’s been a wonderful week. London. Rome. Pilgrimage begun. A cat all the shades of yellow-beige sits with me, looking into my eyes. I am grateful for the company. I don’t want to be where I am. I don’t want to feel what I feel.
There are two human beings through whom, at this stage of my life, God speaks to me. One is Illumina, whom I think of as my Guiding Light (you can find her at www.sacred-relationship.com). The other is my Steadying Hand, and it is he who offered me the seeds that became the Eugenia Street Prayer.
As I sit at the railway station, feeling overwhelmed by my longing for ‘other’ and ‘the other’, it is my Steadying Hand that comes to me, in the form of line 3 of the Eugenia Street Prayer – I keep my puppy on a lead. And so I reign in my emotions and sit tall on the concrete bench, condensing time and space and all that I am to this moment. And voila! in canters my Guiding Light with her gentle reminder:
I am the love of my life.
And my spirits lift. Loneliness begone! Let the journey continue. The train pulls into the station and within the hour I’m flat on my back on cool white sheets, pondering the fine line between receiving what’s on offer and asking for more; guilt’s triumph both. There is more to life than either . . . I’m looking for something outside of forgiveness, you might call it the jewel in the crown.