This is the part where the path of pilgrimage I have chosen this year departs from the main highway, where so many of my friends wave goodbye and then, a few hours later, share the stories of arriving at their destination in Pennsylvania. For the first time in 23 years, I will not walk those roads this year. And even though I chose my own path, my heart still yearns for that familiar rhythm of life, and even wonders whether I will ever walk that path again.
I listened, yesterday, to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin, Op. 46. This piece was written in the waning days of 1936, where, in shock with both the ongoing horror unfolding around him and the dangling precipice where he now stood, both in terms of his own career and his very life, he had almost completely ceased composing. This collection of four songs were the first, tentative steps forward after that trauma. By the end of 1937, he would have completed the Fifth Symphony, which restored him to official favour. But it’s this work of four songs that reveals, in many ways, his turn away from the road previously travelled–one of open experimentation, of unfettered exuberance, of wit and humour spiked with irony, to be sure, but not with pain or anxiety. It’s the text (by Pushkin) of the fourth of these pieces that struck me so hard yesterday:
Whether I wander along noisy streets,
Or walk into a crowded church,
Or sit among giddy youth
I constantly withdraw into my daydreams.
I tell myself: the years fly past
And however many of us there ares,
We will all pass in under the eternal vaults –
And for someone or other that moment is already at hand
If I gaze at the solitary oak,
I reason: The patriarch of the forests
Will outlive my long-forgotten age
As it has outlived the age of our fathers.
If I caress a sweet child,
I find myself already thinking; Farewell!
I surrender my place in the world to you:
The time has come for me to wither, and for you to bloom.
Every day, on every occasion,
I am endlessly searching in my mind,
Trying to guess which particular day
Will be the anniversary of my future death.
And where will fate send death to me?
In battle, on some journey, or at sea?
Or will it be the neighbouring valley
That receives my cooled ashes?
And although to the unfeeling body
It matters not where it may decay
Nevertheless I would prefer to slumber
As close as possible to the sweet familiar bounds.
And let young life
Play around my grave door,
And let unconcerned nature
Glow with eternal beauty there.
My husband interrupts me as I ponder. It was fourteen summers ago when, around this time, we were freed from the duties of raising two kittens by hand. Eleanor and Victoria had reached about eight weeks old at this point, and were now playful and boisterous kittens whose individual personalities were beginning to take shape: Eleanor, the more social one, the larger one, and her shyer, darker sister, Victoria. We could now tell them apart not just by looks but by these personalities. Now, we are losing Eleanor. We have known this to be true for several months, as a lump on her face proved not to be caused by an abscessed tooth, but by something more relentless and insidious. Now, although her personality still persists, she steadily loses weight, hides at feeding time to avoid her medication. Her insistent visits demanding attention are waning. We know what this means, and we prepare ourselves, but we delay as long as we can, not wanting to leave the path we chose fourteen years ago, even though we know it is inevitable. I have held and comforted two cats as their final minutes ticked away and they slipped into their final slumber, not knowing that this was the end. I know that this path must end, but these final days, I put it from my mind.
And so I wonder, in my own fifty-third year of life, where lie the paths of pilgrimage. Having departed my accustomed way, “just for a year,” will I return to it again, as I did after two years away over twenty years ago? If I do, it will surely be a different path, as it is indeed each and every year (it’s just that the changes are slower and less abrupt) The camp I called home for many years at Pennsic disappeared several years ago, and with it friends who themselves chose different paths. But others opened their doors to me, and new growth nurtured, perhaps to flourish in future years. I chose to leave the job I had performed at Pennsic every year for 19 years at the end of last year, and being away this year made that decision final. When I return (should I return), I will not return to that comfortable (and sometimes uncomfortable) rhythm again. Nor is it likely that I will arise early in the morning to walk the pilgrimage road each day, stopping off at a friendly camp in the north for a cup of water along the road–for even that camp is fading into the past, its denizens choosing their own separate roads.
I sensed this all last year, which is why I walked the route of the Camino at the same time I made my own internal pilgrimage, which was less about the end of a journey and more about the end of the beginning of a completely different one. This is the path I have followed for the past year, indeed, a reawakening of the dormant threads of music in my life, an attempt to internalize and honour the coexistence of joy and pain, of beauty and ugliness, of truth and falsehood, of humour and seriousness, and of both self and community. I remain a work in progress. Perhaps this is my midlife crisis, looking behind me and seeing that the road I have traveled stretches long to the horizon, while ahead of me it curves into where I cannot see–but know–truly know–that the days are no longer without number. “We’re only immortal for a limited time,” says the lyric in a Rush song, and this is the burden of the middle-aged–to be suddenly confronted with a desire to make everything of every day that remains to us, to cherish each moment, knowing that we will never return to each moment, except in memory.
And so, my pilgrimage route turns into the unknown. I have an itinerary for these next few months, but I know not what to expect, but I will cherish these steps, alone on my own path, all the more. And perhaps, next year, in Jerusalem.