A different approach to the Way of Saint James with “Paris to the Pyrenees”

When I first visited Santiago de Compostela, Spain, as a college junior in 1981, I knew very little about the medieval pilgrimage route known as “El Camino de Santiago”, or “The Way of Saint James”.  My year in Europe had introduced me to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages and stoked what would be a lifetime passion, and my imagination was captivated by the idea of walking across Spain to what was for many centuries considered the farthest western edge of Europe. I returned to write my undergraduate Senior Honors Thesis about the Camino, and looked forward to the day when I would be able to return and explore the city and its Camino more.

I wasn’t alone in my initial ignorance.  In the early 80’s the Camino was more a historical curiosity than a modern reality.  In 1985, only 690 pilgrims walked it, and that number was up considerably from earlier decades, when a pilgrim might meet only one other person along the entire route.  When I finally returned to Santiago de Compostela in 2010 (a Xacobeo, or Holy Year), 272,703 people had walked the Camino.  While subsequent numbers have been slightly lower, 2013 still saw 215,800 “peregrinos“.  This new-found fascination with an ancient phenomenon has spawned hundreds of books, a seeming infinity of websites, and movies like “The Way”, by Emilio Estevez.  I’ve seen the movie and read more than a few of the books, so was curious when I saw Paris to the Pyrenees:  A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James, by David Downie (Pegasus Books, 2013), on my sister’s reading pile.

Unlike most other books on the subject, Downie starts his walking journey (he is reluctant to call it a pilgrimage) with his wife, photographer Alison Harris, in the Burgundian city of Vézelay, just south of Paris.  His descriptions of the landscape, the trails, and the people he meets are well written, but what I most enjoyed were his ruminations on Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul and Caesar’s adversary, Vercingétorix.  There really is something about walking a Roman road that sparks the imagination and encourages reflection on history and our place in it, and reading about the experience is the next best thing to doing it yourself.

Downie spends most of the book on a day-by-day narrative of his month of walking through Burgundy to just south of Cluny, where his knees and back betray him and force his return to Paris for a period of recuperation. (I can certainly relate to THAT!)  He does finally complete the second part of his planned trip to the Pyrenees, but if I have one complaint about the book it is that the final leg of his “Paris to the Pyrenees” route, from Le Puy-en-Velay to Roncesvalles, warrants a scant twelve pages in his “Epilogue”.  He seems to try to excuse this on the last page:  “I knew that for me many of the most intense moments on our journey had come in Burgundy, where I’d been dogged by doubt, fear, fatigue, and the need to find answers.  In comparison, the rest of the trek had been a lark…”  It reminded me a bit of the AP essays I would read where once the student had hit the required word and paragraph count, he/she would dash off a one sentence conclusion and then be surprised when they received a lower grade.

Downie is also fairly dismissive of the pilgrims he starts to pick up in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the traditional jumping off point for the most popular “Camino Francés”, complaining that “all they seemed to want to do was yak, gah, chat, eat, drink, sleep, compare blisters, race each other, and plan their next vacation.”  He is entitled to his opinion, of course, but I know many friends who have walked the Camino, for a variety of reasons, and it strikes me as arrogant to judge their personal journeys in this manner.  In fact, one of my dear friends and former colleagues has walked the Camino twice, once along the traditional northern route over the Pyrenees and across Spain and once coming up through Portugal.  Her e-mails and photos were beautiful and evocative, and frankly every bit as good as this book’s.  Are you reading this, Pam?

The attraction in this book lies in its unusual take on a very well-traveled path.  The word “skeptic” in the title should serve as a warning.  Other than the route itself, there is little about the Camino.  But I enjoyed it, nonetheless. It was an interesting journey through a part of France traditionally ignored in Camino literature, and I reveled in finding one more person in the world who can look at a Roman bridge or a pre-historic dolmen and imagine the people who had been there before us.


Wrapping my mind around a “Dataclysm”

I admit it.  I like the Internet, and I really like Facebook.  I enjoy seeing what my friends are up to.  I enjoy the pictures and posts from my favorite Spanish TV show, “Isabel”.  I enjoy posting random observations about my life and/or the world or uploading my pictures and then reading what my friends have to say about them.  And I suppose I’ve known all along that through these activities, Facebook and its advertisers know a lot about me.  But it took reading the book Dataclysm:  Who We Are* (*When We Think No One’s Looking), by Christian Rudder (Crown Publishing Group, 2014) to drive home just how much they know.  And it’s A LOT!   What I learned startled me, though I won’t say it surprised me.  I’ve been around long enough to understand there’s “no such thing as a free lunch”, and that something has to be paying for my “free” use of Facebook.

Math was never my best subject, but in the hands of Christian Rudder data and data analysis turns into something fascinating and compelling.  Through the easiest-to-understand charts I’ve ever seen and a witty, thoughtful narrative, Rudder navigates and explains all the data that our participation in social media provides.  I’m technically not in most of his numbers, since he limits much of his analysis to information gathered from the dating website OKCupid (which he helped to develop, and which my 32 year marriage has happily kept me away from) and specifically users between the ages of 20 and 50.  He also analyzes data from Twitter, which I don’t use at all (I just don’t see the point!), and some sites, like Reddit, that I didn’t even really know existed.  But I look at Facebook every day, and I do use Google quite a bit, as do 87% of Americans, so I’m there.  And if you’re reading this it means you’re online, which means you probably are, too.

The subtitle to this book provides a key to its most compelling insights.  I don’t suppose I was surprised to learn, for example, that while men on a dating site might SAY they’re looking for a woman near to their own age, their online behavior suggests otherwise.  The data indicates that 20 is the age at which women are most attractive to men regardless of the man’s age, so that, according to Rudder, “younger is better, and youngest is best of all, and if ‘over the hill’ means the beginning of a person’s decline, a straight woman is over the hill as soon as she’s old enough to drink”.  Yikes!  This is just one of many examples of Rudder’s revelations, and also of his engaging writing style.  There are surprises like this in every chapter.  As someone who tried to always teach the importance of culture in language learning, I especially enjoyed the chapter entitled “Tall for an Asian”.  Rudder’s charts showing the frequency of words used in self-descriptions by various demographics was nothing short of fascinating.

I try to be VERY careful about what I reveal on any public platform.  Part of that could come from my introverted personality, but part of that comes from a lifetime in education.  In order to survive there, frankly, you learn to keep your head down and be very cognizant of how even the slightest comment might be construed.  I’m constantly amazed, then, by what people will say when they are separated from their audience by an electronic device.  Rudder presents the case of one badly worded Twitter post that resulted in the poster’s firing from her job, and also introduced me to something called a “Klout score”, which measures an individual’s online influence on a scale from 0 to 100.  Some employers, I learned, now even state required “Klout scores” as part of job requirements.  I suppose it’s only a matter of time until that trickles down to being part of teacher evaluations…

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review, and I have to say that I have really enjoyed the wide variety of reading experiences I continue to have as a result of my participation in this program.  Dataclysm is a fascinating read, a book well worth your time.  It is an important contribution to the current dialog about Internet privacy and data collection.  I certainly will never experience Facebook the same after reading it!



Loving, losing, and reading.

This is the time of year when I tend to get a bit melancholy.  Yes, the excitement of the holidays is approaching, but with that comes a reminder of the loss of my dad, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack the Monday after Thanksgiving. After his death all I wanted was a family of my own, but lately, frankly, the holidays have only served to remind me of my inadequacies as a parent.  Retirement has been a much-anticipated gift, but weirdly I’ve also been mourning the end of a career I was passionate about.  Raking…and raking…and raking leaves reminds me incessantly of the impermanence of most things.  And for the last two weeks my heart has been hurting for the friends and family of a former student who was killed in an accident, and for two dear friends who lost much-loved pets within a few days of each other.

All of this has me thinking about the other side of the “coin” of love, that of loss.  It sounds trite, but it’s nonetheless true: unless you choose to not love anything, you are going to experience loss.  It is an unavoidable part of being truly alive.  And because I tend to find meaning in the world through what I read, two books this week have reminded me of the inevitability of loss.

El mundo de afuera (The Outside World), has not yet been translated into English, but if you read Spanish I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  Author Jorge Franco won the prestigious 2014 Premio Alfaguara for this novel, which narrates the story of a kidnapping in 1971 Medellín, Colombia.  The wealthy older industrialist who has been kidnapped has a daughter, Isolda, who he tries to keep hidden from the “outside world” in a castle he had built to emulate those he admired in Europe.  Despite his best efforts, the Beatles and mini skirts invade the castle grounds, and when he sends Isolda away to a boarding school, he ends up losing her permanently to a mysterious illness that kills her.  The man who orchestrated his kidnapping, “Mono”, also loses everything, including the ransom money he never ends up receiving and finally, his life.  The characters are brilliantly realized, and there is just enough humor to keep the story from being overwhelming.  What I really liked is that even the “bad guys” are shown to be human, with their own specific fears and sorrows that motivate their actions, however questionable. With touches of magical realism (think a gentler Gabriel García Márquez) and down to earth dialog, this novel is a powerful reminder that no matter how hard we try to hang on to what we love, we can never really avoid pain and loss.

A similar vein of loss runs through Alice Hoffman’s The Story Sisters (Crown, 2010).  As tends to happen when I read one of her books,  I finished this in one day, and when the mother of the three sisters who are its primary protagonists dies of cancer before being able to reconcile with her oldest daughter, I sobbed (which I have not done with a book in a long while!)  Ultimately the remaining characters are redeemed through love, but along the way there is a seemingly never-ending series of losses that serve to remind the reader that nothing is permanent.  Some reviewers found the constant string of misfortunes and deaths to be overwhelming, but I found that it served to reinforce a basic truth:  loss is painful and inevitable, but love makes it meaningful.  Reading the novel at this particular time proved to be a cathartic experience for me.

At my yoga classes, we have been focusing on gratitude, and it occurs to me that I should actually be grateful for my sadness.  It means that I have been given the great gift of love.  When those around me are hurting, I always feel frustrated by my inability to find the right words of consolation.  But I suppose all I can really do in these situations is to offer my love and companionship as they move through that inevitable part of really living, loss.



Re-learning “The Art of Travel”

Since returning from my last trip to Washington D.C. and Philadelphia (with a quick jaunt to Pittsburgh and back), I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been feeling “at loose ends” and a bit useless.  When I went to San Juan Island, I came back excited about retirement and all the possibilities it opened up.  What was so different about the two trips?

As it happens, I picked up a book in the gift shop of the National Gallery of Art in D.C. that has, if not the answers, then certainly some very good suggestions about why travel affects me the way it does, and in such different ways from trip to trip.  First, can I just say, I love museum gift shops!  They always have such interesting little odds and ends!  When I saw the book, The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton (Vintage Books, 2002), I was immediately drawn to it. I had the vague sense that it was something I had already seen, if not read, and that I may have even given it as a gift at some point in the past, but when I opened it to random pages, the prose felt so fresh and so different that I decided to buy it anyway.  I finally got around to reading it this week, and if I’ve read it before I sure don’t remember being this astonished!

De Botton starts the book with a trip he takes to Barbados as an escape from the dreariness of a London winter.  The morning after his arrival at the island, he wanders out onto the beach, where he realizes:

I may have noticed a few birds careering through the air in matinal excitement, but my awareness of them was weakened by a number of other, incongruous and unrelated elements, among them a sore throat I had developed during the flight, worry over not having informed a colleague that I would be away, a pressure across both temples and a rising need to visit the bathroom.  A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making itself apparent:  I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.   (My emphasis.)

That was it!  That was the problem!  I had somehow managed to leave a good portion of myself behind when I visited San Juan Island, but brought much more of myself than was good for anybody with me to D.C.!

This little book has insights like these on practically every page.  What I love about it is the way it mingles visual art with literary insights with the author’s personal observations.  The result is a varied and thoughtful look at seemingly every aspect of travel.  De Botton divides the book into chapters like “On Anticipation” and “On the Exotic”, separated with title pages that include a place and then either an author, a visual artist, or both.  I found a bit of myself in each chapter.  In Amsterdam, de Botton stands in front of an apartment building, where he “…stopped by a red front door and felt an intense longing to spend the rest of (his)…life there.”  I’ve done that!  Pretty much every time I visit a place I begin fantasizing about living there!

In a later chapter, “On the Sublime”, de Botton visits the Sinai Desert, where he reflects on the importance of contemplating something immensely bigger than ourselves.  As I read I found myself wondering if that isn’t why the trip to San Juan Island left me feeling so much more rejuvenated and hopeful than the trip to D.C.  Sitting outside in the dark at our isolated rental house, listening to the ocean, gazing at the stars, watching orcas leap out of the water just a few yards away from my kayak, all this left me with a sense of wonder and infinite possibilities.  As de Botton says:

If the world seems unfair or beyond our understanding, sublime places suggest that it is not surprising that things should be thus…Sublime places gently move us to acknowledge limitations that we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events…If we spend time in them, they may help us to accept more graciously the great, unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.

I love Washington, D.C., but I inevitably feel diminished in some way when I visit.  Whenever I’m there I seem to inadvertently end up reflecting on all the things that I didn’t accomplish in my life.  I find myself confronting my own limitations there, but without the “sublime” element that allows me to put those limitations in a wider context.

In his last chapter, “On Habit”, de Botton suggests being as open to new observations and experiences at home as we are when we travel.  He introduces us to the writer Xavier de Maistre, whose Journey around My Bedroom “…was gently nudging us to try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen.”  This is excellent advice, advice I found myself thinking about this afternoon as I drove home from the grocery store and noticed the way the sunlight was illuminating the mountains I look at every day, mountains that encourage me to contemplate the sublime if only I’ll take the time to do so.

What a wonderful book The Art of Travel is!  That I picked it up during my travels only makes it more charming.  It is a book I suspect I will read again many times, always finding a new insight to delight me and a new challenge to encourage deeper reflection.  It certainly made me feel better about myself and my trajectory, and you can’t ask much more of a book than that!

Iphone to October 21 14 322                                                                IMG_2153


Reading as recalibration…

Well, it’s been almost a month since I last posted.  During that time I’ve been to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, applied for a very part-time library job that I realized I physically can no longer do, and experienced a bit of a crisis of confidence as a result of these experiences. So, I’ve reverted to doing what I always do in these situations…I read!!

I just finished Fields of Blood:  Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).  I received this book in exchange for a review from “Blogging for Books”, and the choice couldn’t have been more fortuitous.  I opted for this book because I was interested to see what kind of perspective it could give me on current events, in particular the threat of ISIS (though frankly I’m also concerned about the religious undertones of our political debate in this country).  Karen Armstrong is that rare writer who can take a very complicated topic and make it understandable.  It is her premise that violence has been an unavoidable part of human experience since we moved away from a hunter/gatherer existence, and that instead of being the cause of violence, religion has more often been a way to mitigate the worst excesses of a competition for resources and a seeming need for the “ecstasy” that warfare provides..  As I read I couldn’t help but think back to Tom Standage’s An Edible History of Humanity (Walker & Company, 2009), since he makes similar points about the inequality and violence that resulted from the rise of agrarian civilizations.

Armstrong’s writing is dense, and this book is not a quick read.  But if you want to understand current events more deeply and completely, this would be a very good place to start.  While Armstrong doesn’t delve into her own spiritual beliefs, it is clear that she is a religion apologist.  She doesn’t gloss over occurrences like the Spanish Inquisition or the Thirty Years War, but she does question many of our assumptions and puts them in their proper historical perspective.  Her last chapters on the Middle East and the rise of radical Islam are especially well written, and her analysis of the events of 9/11 and its aftermath is balanced and thoughtful.

Before leaving for D.C., I read The Teacher Wars:  A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, by Dana Goldstein (Doubleday, 2014)  It should more appropriately be considered in the context of my previous post, but since I read it AFTER that post, I’m putting a quick review here.  Goldstein does an excellent job of putting the current hysteria about teaching in a historical context, citing an almost continual “moral panic” in the United States about our schools and their teachers.  Even though I spent 30 plus years in the profession (and grew up with two teacher parents and many other family members also in the profession), I learned a great deal about the trajectory of education in this country.  I think my biggest “aha” moment was the realization that it was never a given that we would provide a free, quality public education to all.  And the analysis of how we have prepared our teachers over the last two hundred years underscored a paradox I saw in my own experience: should teachers be “experts” in what they are teaching, or is knowledge secondary to pedagogy?  This book is an important contribution to the current dialog about education, and Goldstein makes some excellent recommendations based on her research.

Part of my current lapse of confidence revolves around feeling a bit “at loose ends” as I try to re-invent myself after three decades of devotion to a profession that Goldstein shows us has always struggled to be respected.  The problem with being an avid reader is that I can imagine lots of possibilities.  The problem with being a retired public school teacher is that I still tend to think in terms of “inside the box” safety.   If only I could write like John Baxter in  The Most Beautiful Walk in the World (Harper Perennial, 2011)!  His narration of life in Paris is exquisite.  He has a special interest in the experience of ex-patriots from the past, like Hemingway, and reading the book feels a lot like taking a walk next to him from the present to the past.  I love travel writing, and I really love travel writing done well.  This book is one of the best!

I also enjoyed immensely three novels.   Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (Mariner Books, 2006) is narrated by the nine-year-old son of a man who died in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.  I liked his voice very much, and also enjoyed the “tour” of New York City.  The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Scribner, 2014) couldn’t be anything but good given that the author, Alice Hoffman, is one of my all time favorites!  While I didn’t think this was one of her best, it was very good, and captured a time in New York City that I did not know much about.  Another novel set at around the same time, but in Boston, is The House of Velvet and Glass, by Katherine Howe (Hyperion, 2013).  She is also an excellent writer, and I find her characters to be fascinating and believable.

I’m pretty excited about the book I’m reading right now, so hopefully my next post will be a bit more inspired…