Sunday, 27 September 2009

Keeping going

Some letters in my in box this week have reminded me of the strength of the human spirit to endure in the face of great difficulty. Some people live with serious infirmity, pain and disability and yet their spirits soar. One of these pilgrim friends who tackled the challenges and went on to make several Caminos to Santiago has written to me about his experience. His story will appear here and I’ll send it to the Confraternity of St James hopefully for wider circulation.
Reading the correspondence again reminded me of the challenges of life that all of us face, some more than others. In many ways making the pilgrimage to Santiago is a symbolic walking of the road of life with all of its joys and pleasures, physical and mental challenges, its obstacles and set backs. The many different people encountered along the way.

Some people travel the journey of life until old age. Others are stopped in their tracks much earlier. The first of my contemporaries died tragically in the last week and maybe that has me thinking in this vein. But rather than dwell on those with short Caminos I’m trying to keep my eye on a more distant horizon!

That’s why I’ve been thinking about the long-livers in the Johnnie Walker dynasty. So far the women have lived well into their 90’s with the men like my father living well into their 80’s. By rights I should be walking for many years yet!

I’ve also been thinking about where people draw their strength. For my Dad, a working class man with no education, surprisingly it was poetry and literature.

When he died the priest at his funeral spoke of his last visits to him.” He was a quiet and unassuming man. He had no “if onlys” in his life. No regrets. Beside his bed lay the sources of his pleasure – the bible, the letters of Henry Root and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of poetry. In these three the character of the man was revealed. Faithful to what he believed and the family he loved. The driest sense of humour. A deep and creative spirit. “

Some months ago on the outstanding blog of the Solitary Walker, I read his appreciation of the poetry of Worsdsworth. I’ve kept going back to the series of posts. For a poet who never walked to Santiago - as far as we know! Wordsworth has keen insights into this journey we make on our own:

Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee: and, in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies;
oh! then,If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!

A few weeks ago on the Route from Madrid there were many miles of endless paths to walk in the baking sun. I find the rhythm of walking in this completely open landscape very hypnotic. Balm for the mind and soul. The words of Wordsworth came back to me then and so too did the words of Seamus Heaney in his poem Keeping Going.

This was a work I was introduced to many years ago. Again I go back to its passages from time to time.

So here is the first and last stanzas for those who may be unfamiliar with it. Heaney wrote this about his brother who suffered from “turns” or “seizures”.

The piper coming from far away is you
With a whitewash brush for a sporran
Wobbling round you, a kitchen chair
Upside down on your shoulder, your right arm
Pretending to tuck the bag beneath your elbow,
Your pop-eyes and big cheeks nearly bursting
With laughter, but keeping the drone going on
Interminably, between catches of breath.

My dear brother, you have good stamina.
You stay on where it happens. Your big tractor
Pulls up at the Diamond, you wave at people,
You shout and laugh about the revs, you keep
old roads open by driving on the new ones.
You called the piper's sporrans whitewash brushes
And then dressed up and marched us through the kitchen,
But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong.
I see you at the end of your tether sometimes,
In the milking parlour, holding yourself up
Between two cows until your turn goes past,
Then coming to in the smell of dung again
And wondering, is this all?
As it was In the beginning, is now and shall be?
Then rubbing your eyes and seeing our old brush
Up on the byre door, and keeping going.

And there we have it. Every pilgrim in their own way keeps the old roads open by walking on the new paths and sometimes in our Caminos whether on the Mesta or not, all we can do is keep going.


  1. What a really wonderful post, Johnnnie! And thanks for your kind comment about my blog. I'm glad you liked the Wordsworth posts. Nice Heaney extract, btw - one of my favourite poets.

  2. Your photos on the Madrid route show the beauty of this route, with some very desolate, dry stretches. I was expecting this kind of walk on some of the Meseta, but was surprised by the beauty of lots of spring green. (And I was surprised by how 'peopled' it all was, often close to roads etc.) Your photos show me some of the harshness I feared I was going to face on the Meseta, and I wasn't sure if I was going to manage such heat and desolation at all well. Thanks as always for sharing your insights into the Camino.