Thursday, June 13, 2013

Traveling as Spiritual Practice

Me on my birthday August 6, 2011 with Momma Mt. Rainier

A sermon by The Rev. Connie Yost
Preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of McMinnville, Oregon
June 16, 2013

I am a traveler by birth, disposition and, I am sure, the hand of God.  It is in my blood.  My Dad was a great traveler, limited only by lack of money and time during his long, working life.  But he lacked nothing in imagination and passion for seeing the sights.

It was different with my mother.  She went along, of course, but she did not open up to anything new except with fear and criticism.  In many ways, it must been a real drag for him to have her along.  But in their world, you did not travel alone if you have a spouse.

Not so with me.  I have traveled with husbands, lovers, family, other people's family, friends, enemies, strangers, stuffed animals, cats, and one sad time, a turtle.  But I much prefer traveling alone.  A lot of people don't get this. 

"Hey, lady, where's your husband?" the young cab driver says the minute I get into the taxi at the airport in Puerto Vallarta.  "He's dead," I say.  It's not true, of course, as at that moment I have no husband, and the ex's are very much alive.  But it is the only thing guaranteed to kill the conversation cold.  You cannot explain to most people why you love traveling alone. 

I think most people are afraid of being alone in any place, and certainly can only think of what horrible dangers might befall them, especially if they are female, when traveling out of their tiny comfort zone.

In truth, we are not safe anywhere.  That is just the sad reality that very few people, before they are faced with major illness and death, are willing to accept.  It is an occupational hazard for those of us in the ministry, medical profession, social services and other helping professions.  We know we are going to die, because we see people die all the time.  I am sure that changes us, each in our own way.  But overall, I think it makes us appreciate the life we have more, and gives us a certain urgency to stop wasting time, tell the truth, help others, and follow our passions and dreams. 

This all came home to me recently when I woke up in the night on the floor with a head injury.  I have no memory at all of what happened.  I had to rush to the airport to go to Los Angeles and while there, got checked out by Dr. Shaw in the emergency room of Providence Little Company of Mary.  I was not in the best frame of mind, of course, and probably frustrated all the nurses and Dr. Shaw when I could not explain what had happened.  In addition, I could not explain what I was doing in LA with a head injury when I lived in Oregon, or was I moving to LA?   My friend Jennifer had to intervene to help make sense out of my situation.

Dr. Shaw was appropriately patient and kind.  He ordered the right tests, and asked me the right questions.  He had me place my index finger on my nose, and touch his index finger with both of mine.  He said I did very well.  Nurses came in and poked me and hooked me up to machines and wheeled me down long corridors to radiology.  I told Jennifer I felt like Jack Nicholson in the movie, Something's Gotta Give, whose character kept ending up being wheeled into the hospital on a gurney. 

After a time, Dr. Shaw came back with the test results, smiling and laughing.  I said, "I hope this is a good sign."  He showed me the scan of my head, all normal, he said, though it looked particularly gruesome to me for some reason.  I have seen plenty of scans in my chaplain work, but somehow mine just looked terrible.  Blood work all good.  EKG completely normal.  So, no skull fracture, no tumors, no bleeding on the brain, no kidney disease, no diabetes, no heart attack.  Very good.  Then why was I on the floor?

Dr. Shaw said, "We do not know for sure, but it could have been a seizure."  Seizure!!  No!!  Why?  "We don't know," he said.  "How is your life going?" he asked.  Jennifer and I burst out laughing.  "It's a disaster," I said.  "I just moved, I have been arguing with tenants, internet and cable TV providers, Verizon, the electric, water and gas companies in two cities, I am trying to get some work done in the middle of all this and recover from my trip to Germany."

Dr. Shaw listened in wide-eyed wonder to my tale of woe.  He could not help but laugh, which I thought was totally appropriate.  What else can you do in these situations?  And, like Jack Nicholson's doctor in the movie, Dr. Shaw warned me to "decompress" or words to that effect.  I have surely taken that advice to heart in these last few weeks.

It would be over 2 weeks later before I understood the full ramification of having an injury to my brain.  In the meanwhile, I practiced denial while in LA until I simply got too tired to ignore the fact that I really was not well.  As the bruising on my face kicked in, I bought and wore eye shadow and more makeup than I normally would.  With my glasses on, people could not tell I had a black eye that was rapidly progressing from the corners to a full frontal assault.  And luckily my hair covered up the encroaching baby-diaper greenish-yellow color of my forehead.  But there was no denying that while sitting quietly, I could not keep my eyes open for sheer fatigue, and my tolerance for the ineptitude rampant in all sectors of today's society was just about nil. 

But even in the midst of personal tragedy while away from home, grace happens.  It happened for me not only because I was surrounded by people I knew and who loved me and took charge to care for me, but also because of strangers who, I am convinced, seize their opportunity to provide an act of kindness when it hits them from out of the blue.

I had moved to the hotel in Torrance to be nearer Jennifer, who lived in Redondo Beach and kindly offered to chauffeur me around to my appointments and the LA Metro.  She showed me that about a mile and half down the road from my hotel there was the Madrona Marsh, containing the last few square inches of undeveloped marsh land in the entire LA and Orange County region.  Well, it is actually 10 acres but when you think of how incredible the entire area used to be with all the marshes intact, the unpaved rivers, the orange and walnut groves, and the verdant farms -- well, it breaks your heart, really.  In any event, I planned an entire day to myself to rest and recover from the head injury, and I thought it would be good to spend some of it down at the marsh.

After an aborted attempt to take a bus (don't ask), I finally arrived at the marsh.  It was fenced all around, with the sign in the corner of two streets meeting perpendicularly.  I debated which side to walk down in search of a gate.  I chose to keep going straight.  I was getting pretty fatigued by that time and did not want to keep walking unless I knew for sure it was the right way.  I saw a man doing something with a stick in the ground; his white truck parked nearby had some official-looking seal on it, so I approached him to ask him where the gate was.  When I was about 8 feet away, he looked up with the defended look LA residents tend to have and which I knew so well from my seven years of residence there.  With every crazy thing that goes on there, it is really the smart way to approach things.  I understand that.  Still, I could not help but blame myself for his reaction to me.  Who is this crazy woman with a black eye, wearing what a lady I passed called my "Caribbean outfit" of loose-fitting linen complete with a sky blue sunhat?  And who walks out here anyway, for God's sake?

I asked him where the gate was, and he explained that it was on the street I had chosen not to walk down when I first approached the sign.  I thanked him, turned around and began walking back.  After several minutes, I noticed that a vehicle up at the stoplight a block away was backing up at a rapid pace.  I stopped to ponder who this crazy person was and what were they doing?  This was a major four-lane boulevard, and granted there were no cars coming right then, but still, what in the world?  As I stood there watching this vehicle rapidly approaching, I began to worry that it was going to jump the sidewalk and hit me.  Sure enough, it did jump the sidewalk and came to a screeching halt right next to me.  It was only then that I saw that it was the man I had spoken to, now in his white truck, lowering the window to ask me if I wanted a ride to the gate.

Normally, I would not get into a stranger's vehicle, but somehow it seemed OK this time.  His truck was full of equipment and debris which he apologized for.  The ride was so short I did not get a chance to ask him what he did, but a friend of mine said he was probably a government employee of some kind, testing the water quality.  What did occur to me immediately and has stuck with me is that here is a man who obviously had second thoughts about helping out a stranger.  Was it the pathetic black eye, the ridiculous blue hat, or the fact that not many little old ladies were out walking right then?  I like to think that he realized a block away that he could provide kindness to a stranger, and that the thought was so compelling that he flew backwards like a bat out of hell to do it.  I hope it has given him as much renewed faith in humankind as it has given me, the recipient of this kindness from a stranger.

I tell you this story because for me, this is why I love travel, and why I particularly love traveling alone.  Travel for me is a spiritual practice.  It makes me humble and more open to others.  I have to ask for help more often than not.  I am hopelessly language challenged.  Well, I can get by in Spanish all right, but only to talk about basic things like buses, money, food and bathrooms.  I am hopeless in any other language and usually I do not even understand the English people speak, in this country or in any other.  

I do my homework ahead of time.  I plan where I want to go.  I usually book hotel reservations ahead, I look at bus and train schedules if available, and study the road map if I am driving.  I learn a few basic words in the native language, like please and thank you and good morning and good evening.  But stuff happens no matter how well you plan, and it is that stuff, those serendipitous moments that makes travel a spiritual practice. 

It can be as simple as an encounter with an exuberant 10 year old who assigns himself as your guide in Guatemala and merrily chats away about the entire world, which in his mind is his village.  It can be the tears you bring to the Indian woman at the market in Patzcuaro, Mexico, when you buy everything she has, just as she is setting up for the day.  Her tears and her words, "Vaya con Dios, Vaya con Dios, Vaya con Dios" still ring in my heart. 

And sometimes it can be challenging.  While eating lunch in a restaurant in Ajijic, Mexico, a man at the next table struck up what I thought would be a friendly conversation.  But when he found out that I had driven to Ajijic with my two cats, he coolly informed me that I was lucky I had not been raped and murdered on the way down.  Then he laughed.  And asked me out!  (Get a new line, buddy!)  After that, I always crossed the street to avoid him in town, but not before I saw him still laughing at me in a way that to this day makes my blood boil.

And sometimes the encounter can be simply profound, as when you fall in love.  In a way, travel as spiritual practice is like falling in love, because the more foreign our encounters, the more we open ourselves up, leaving behind our habitual defenses and mindsets.  For once, we know that we do not know, and we are open to learning and listening to others.

The progressive Catholic priest Richard Rohr reminds me that sometimes what happens in travel is that we experience liminal space.  He writes,

"What some call “liminal space” or threshold space (limen in Latin means a threshold, a starting line in a race, or a beginning place) is a very good phrase for those special times, events, and places that open us up to the sacred… The veil between this world and the next world was considered most “thin” and most easily traversed during these times. [During these times] we were invited to be aware of deep time—that is, past, present, and future time gathered into one especially holy moment… we are reminded that our ancestors are still in us and work with us and through us … We are in liminal space whenever past, present, and future time come together in a “full” moment of readiness. We are in liminal space whenever the division between “right here” and “over there” is obliterated in our consciousness."

You cannot plan for that.  But you can plan to be open enough so it can happen.  It happened to me on my recent trip to Germany.

I went to Germany for two reasons (I thought):  one, to go on a spiritual retreat visiting the historical sites of Hildegard of Bingen and learning more about her ministry; and two, to visit the village where my great grandmother was born in the Black Forest area.

The retreat was wonderful even though there had been a major blizzard just two days before I arrived and we spent most of our time slogging through the snow and sitting in very cold, unheated churches.  But I definitely felt the power of Hildegard in the present, and even realized later that a miracle or two had happened to me though I was skeptical about it when Sister Hiltrud vehemently explained that the miracles happen when we pray and touch Hildegard's relics at her church.

I never did find the village where my great grandmother was born, but I enjoyed visiting the Black Forest area and have my cuckoo clock and little Black Forest doll as reminders of my ancestors there.

What I did not expect was that I would come away from Germany feeling proud to be 100% German.  And further, that I would come away from Germany feeling proud of Germany. 

I have traveled in Germany before in which I found it interesting to see the sights, but I certainly did not want to think about my own German heritage.  I had often thought that being German was a big part of what was wrong with my family.  I was raised in a very strict and authoritarian and what I thought was a German way in which children were seen and not heard and you toed the line or else.  Curtains.  I had vaguely wondered over the years how much of the family dynamics were due to individual predilections, genetics or national characteristics handed down through the generations.  There was not a small bit of fear in me that I would inevitably act out these characteristics no matter how hard I tried not to.

And then there was Germany's history.  Geez Louise.  How do you wrap your head around that when the last of your family left Germany in 1881?  I realized I was carrying some kind of innate guilt about everything that Germany perpetrated in the twentieth century.  I do not know why I felt so guilty about it, but I sat at coffee with a man who had been our guide to the Hildegard sites, and tried to ask him about it. 

Some guidebooks actually say that you should not talk about the war or Nazis or anything like that in Germany.  I decided to plunge ahead anyway.  It was really what I wanted to talk about.  And here was what might be my one chance to do so.  I cannot remember exactly what I said, but it was something about guilt, genetics and trying to understand.  "Do you know what I mean?" I asked him.

To my surprise, he said yes, and then told me about how his grandfather had been imprisoned early in the Nazi regime.  If it had been later, he would have been sent to a concentration camp.  And his father was drafted into the German Army at the tender age of 18, serving for six long years in North Africa and France.  He would have had to serve even longer except for the shrapnel he got in the back of his head which gave him a discharge and caused him a lifetime of headaches.

He then went on to talk about how he often thought of how hard it must have been for his parents struggling to survive and make a new life for themselves after the war.  Life was very difficult for them.  His father did not return a war hero as mine did.  His parents had to struggle for food and a place to live.  I cannot even imagine what the mental and emotional burden must have been.  These were people who were not Nazis, but they had to suffer the individual and national burden of guilt nonetheless.  Many Nazis never paid for their crimes.  He said that many of his schoolteachers were former Nazis. 

My God, I thought.  Our fathers could have been shelling each other.  I could have been him.  I could have been born in Germany instead of America.

It was my liminal moment.  I sat there mesmerized by this story, and felt my ancestors gathering around me.  At that moment, I became German in a way I never dreamed possible.  Suddenly I wanted to own the ancestry that I never cared about and even feared before this.  Suddenly I was proud of all the accomplishments of this country and its people, accomplishments and gifts to humanity that were far greater, kinder, meaningful and deeper than anything the Nazis could ever do or destroy.  I left the cafĂ© with no shame about being German, only a deep appreciation of Germany and Germans and a desire to know much more about these people and myself - past, present and future.  From then on, I traveled in Germany less as an American and more as a German (albeit without knowing any German), and based on the number of people who kept talking to me in German, I seemed to have passed pretty well.

We may travel to many places in this world, but as we go about on planes and trains and cars and bicycles and on foot, there is an inward journey happening as well.  What we find out there cannot exist unless we find it inside our hearts as well.  That is the spiritual practice, that is the transformation waiting for us to open up and receive it.

Copyright 2013 Constance B. Yost. All rights reserved