Tag Archives: Wanderings

The Business (or Pleasure) of Pilgrimage

“We are all of us seeking a homeland, dear,
even though we have only seen and embraced it from afar.
We are all of us strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”
Frederick Buechner

“Business or Pleasure?”

It was what acquaintances asked when I mentioned I’d be out of touch for a few weeks while traveling in eastern Europe.

It was what the sales associate asked me when I bought my electrical adapter and extra camera memory card.

It was what the teller at the bank asked me when I told her to mark my account as going overseas.

“Business or pleasure?”

It’s such a cliché and profound question at the same time. They’re asking because I’m going to an uncommon and surprising destination (the bank teller made me write “Transylvania” on a piece of paper for her before she believed what I was saying), and they’re asking because it’s what you ask when someone says they’re traveling.

But it’s also a deep and compelling question to ask someone: What is the purpose of your traveling? Why do you think you’re going to this place?

Really, I was never entirely sure how to answer that fateful question accurately. Because the categories of business versus pleasure aren’t enough of a distinction to encompass this trip.

Strangers and Pilgrims on the Earth

I’m going on pilgrimage, to a little town in central Romania, to visit strangers who are long-time friends of my church community.

I’m going because I’m on the church staff, and my presence underscores the importance of the partnership for us. I’m going because I was asked to go as part of my job. I’m also going because I very much want to meet these resilient, colorful people whom — until now — I have only known from afar.

Pilgrimage is more than pleasure: it is certainly the answer to what Frederick Buechner calls the “summons” of mystery in human experience. It is also more than business: this is a sharing of communities, not a transaction.

When I arrive in Transylvania tomorrow, I will be at the mercy of my hosts, who I’m sure will welcome me to their tables, their homes. Though we don’t share language, we share a commitment to honoring the places of their Hungarian heritage. Though we don’t share a culture, we share the roots of religious tradition, and those are deep roots indeed.

The complexities of kind of this kind of trip is not particularly easy to explain to acquaintances, bank tellers, and sales associates, so I tell them I am traveling for both business and pleasure.

Really, though, what I mean is that I’m traveling for more than business and pleasure.


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Searching for Meaning: A response to Sandy Hook

escalante river

A Message of Death

When 32 people were shot and killed at Virginia Tech in April 2007, I was in the middle of the desert.

I’d been there for over a week, hiking through the canyons of Utah, doing invasive species removal with a group of volunteers for the National Park Service. We were too far to be reached by telephone signals or electrical wires.

But not too far to be reached by death.

The park ranger’s brother passed away unexpectedly while we were in the field. The Park Service flew signal plans over the canyon where we were camped, lights blinking trouble-trouble, until he climbed to the top of a nearby ridge where we could get a weak radio signal.

Come back, they told him, there’s been an emergency. So we cleaned up camp, cached our tools, and hiked the 7 miles back out of the desert, returning a few days earlier than planned.

I noticed the minute my feet hit the concrete: all the flags were at half mast.

Then I found a newspaper.

It was a strange way to find out about national tragedy. For days our little group had communed only with each other and the stars. We had worried only about getting our work done, about not disturbing sleeping snakes, about properly purifying our water.

It is shock enough to come back from the wilderness, but it was worse to come back to a different reality than the one we’d left.

Indeed, grief is a far-flung messenger that will find you no matter where you hide.

Meaning Beyond Absurdity

It didn’t take so long for the message of Sandy Hook to reach me.

Friday morning, as events unfolded somewhere else, I was playing piano at a funeral for a beloved woman I never knew. It was a message of death that was bittersweet, welcomed at the end of a well-lived life, and we, her congregation, gathered to eat and sing and pray together, to give thanks for her life and death, to speak hope for life beyond.

I heard about Sandy Hook the minute I turned on my car radio.

When I heard the number of deaths, I had to pull over to put both hands on my face. Out to dinner that night, I cried in a public restaurant just trying to speak of those children, of the children in my life that I know and love.

Didn’t we all pull over and cry in public? Didn’t we all lean on each other, rub our knees raw, search for something meaningful to say about tragedy and violence?

Aren’t we still searching?

Ten days before his death, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel did a television interview for NBC. When asked if he had a special message for young people, he nodded.

Remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity.
Be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power,
and that we do, everyone, our share to redeem the world,
in spite of all absurdities, and all the frustrations, and all the disappointment.
(Interview transcript can be found here)

Even if we do not know what to make of this tragedy — in the face of absurdity, frustration, and disappointment — there is yet meaning. Though we don’t know what to say or do that can possibly be adequate, we try anyway, because we cannot say or do nothing.

Every little deed counts; every word has power. And together we are responsible for redeeming the world.

Tikkun olam, as the Jewish teaching says, heal the world.

The Work of Redemption

And then it’s Christmas.

We have been waiting this Advent. We knew we were waiting for redeemer come, but we did not know we were waiting for this — for a message of death, for absurdity and grief.

Death came anyway, and we are still waiting for that redeemer to be born, tiny and fragile, into our midst. Has Advent ever felt so long?

Over the weekend, we asked our youth to hold a moment of silence for the victims, and one boy asked Why? It doesn’t make any difference to remember. Why should we hold silence?

But it does matter.

Our waiting — in this Advent season, in this time of grief, in this very moment of silence — matters.

Our grieving — for brothers lost unexpectedly, for beloved grandmothers who lived life full, for tiny children who were only strangers — matters.

Our hoping — for peace in our communities, for the healing of our hearts, for the coming of our redeemer — matters.

May we not tire in waiting, grieving, and hoping — for this is the work of redemption that belongs to each one of us.

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Being free and being home

It’s a quiet morning around here.

For reading and writing, spooning yogurt with fruit and sipping coffee. For savoring gentle morning sunshine and wandering barefoot around the house.


I recently moved across the country — from Berkeley to Boston — and things are finally getting unpacked and set up. Doesn’t that process always seem to take centuries? But, at last!, the number of boxes is dwindling!

It’s been strange to see all my stuff again.

I moved out of my parents house at 18 when I went to college. Since then, I’ve lived in 3 dorms, 5 apartments, and 2 houses. I spent a few months staying in a staff house while I was a trail guide and a few months living in an author’s house (along with her dog, Sir Barks-a-Lot) while she was on Sabbatical. I also spent a significant amount of time traveling and staying with friends & family.

When I list my previous residences for background checks or lease applications, there are enormous multi-month gaps where I was living in my car or tent more than I was renting.

Needless to say, I haven’t been able to keep a lot of material possessions with me. They’ve spent most of the time in storage bins or my parents’ basement.

But now, they’re here. My car, my backpack, my piano, my books, my clothes, my wicker mirror, my childhood journals, my bicycle, my houseplants… they’re all in one place.

It’s amazing how many things I own that I forgot about.

Hello chicken timer!

“Is she free?”

Yesterday, I was telling my Pastor about a visit to my boyfriend’s mother, who lives in a sweet little country house in Western Mass. He expressed surprise that she could afford to buy a house in her late 60s.

“Well,” I explained, “she lives frugally.” And she does. Her aesthetic tends toward the sparse and utilitarian. She barely has any material possessions at all.

“Oh. Is she free?” he asked.

“What?” The question caught me off guard.

“Is she free? If she doesn’t have any material possessions weighing her down, she must be a free spirit.”

I had to chew on that one for a while.

“I guess we aren’t all weighed down by the same things,” he admitted eventually. But I wondered, as I settled into my new home, reunited with my old stuff.

As someone who dislikes clutter and likes back-country backpacking, I can certainly appreciate the freedom that comes from living minimally. As someone who has spent almost a decade wandering place-to-place every few months, I can also appreciate creature comforts. (I have internet now! In my house!)

Being home

While most people I know seem to be going in the other direction — worrying over too much stuff, too much technology, too much busy-ness in their lives — I’m sitting on a chair I inherited from my grandmother and deeply appreciating the comfort and consistency of home.

I am overwhelmed with gratitude each morning I bike to work along the gorgeous pond-circling tree-lined path, every night when I tuck my clothes back into my childhood bureau, every time I can sit on my porch and watch the summer storm clouds gather.

Right now, it doesn’t feel like too much to me. It feels like downpours of blessing.

But the minute I feel like my soul’s freedom is in question, it all goes. All of it. Starting with that chicken timer.

Happy that Imperfect Prose is back over at Emily’s! Go visit 🙂


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