Friday, July 18, 2014

I Guess I Will Always be a Tourist

This was our fifth trip we've made to Ireland. I've spent more than a month here on each of four trips. I have another month trip planned for 2015. Still, I feel somehow I'll always be a tourist. The people of Ireland are very hospitable. Most everyone is willing to chat. I’ve some of my best conversions while riding in taxis and at the pubs. Of course I get the obligatory question, "Where are you from?" I used to answer, "America," but then I got tired of the, as the Irish say, 'You taken me for an ejjiot' look, translated, "Yes, Yank I can tell your from America." Kindly, though, they ask, "What part?" One night in Ennis I told the woman asking, “Arizona.” "Aye," she said, "You're used to the dead heat." Arizona, does indeed have dead heat. Though, I am not used to it—in fact, I despise it. Then, she, like most curious folks, asked how was our stay. Telling people we're staying for a month always receives a pleasant response. They seem to appreciate we're taking the time to really see the country. Then, when I told her we've been here five times, the next question is typically, "So what keeps drawing you back?" That question gets to the heart of the matter.

Why do I keep coming back to Ireland? For one, both sides of my family has identifiable roots in Ireland. One side of both my mother's paternal and maternal families have Irish roots. My father's family, the Staffords, also has its roots in Ireland. I just haven't gotten all the family research completed, but I am making progress. When I give my name along the eastern coast and down into the southeastern counties, especially Wexford and Waterford, I usually get the response, "I know some Staffords, are you related?" The English drove the Staffords off the British isle in the late 17th century. Most all of them settled in Ireland. Maybe I'll find a distant cousin someday?

I've also made continued trips to Ireland for a paradoxical reason; to get away from the "dead heat," of Arizona. While at the same time, to place myself into the alchemical heat of transformation, a "dead heat," which I find readily available to me in Ireland. Four times, I have been here on pilgrimage, the last three, walking. The experience of trekking through the ancient forests of Erie moves me into deep psychological reflection—the work necessary for alchemy of the soul.

The alchemical process has four stages; blackening, the red, the yellowing (or multi-colors), and the white stage. The goal is to create psychic gold, or the philosopher's stone. In Jung's term's, individuation or the complete integration of the personhood into their Self (the center point of the psychic circle). This long and complex process requires "dead heat." A heat that is managed and well tended. Hot enough to bring about psychological transformation. Not so hot as to totally incinerate the psyche.

Blackening brings the dross to the surface where it can be scraped away. Those things in our life that have been suppressed and need to come to the surface for us to deal with and then let go. The reddening turns up the heat every so slightly. What remains, begins to congeal, now in a more healthy way. Much like having a jigsaw puzzle where we had forced some pieces to fit in order just to move on—now we are able to go back and slowly rework the puzzle so that the pieces fit nicely in their appropriate places. It feels and looks better. Next, in yellowing (or multicolor like the peacocks tail), more heat is added in order for something beautiful, which has been hidden deep within, to now emerge. This is the stage where the work of individuation could possibly become visible to others. The person going through the alchemy of the soul is allowing the Self to be the center and not the ego. These stages take careful, intentional, risky, and time committed work—a lifetime. The white stage, well, is as difficult as making gold. Maybe such is the reason I still feel like a tourist in life, no matter where I am—just not quite home.

Obviously I've over simplified the alchemy of the soul. Jung has written at length about the work. I'm working on these ideas in more detail as they relate to the book I'm writing, Pilgrimage: A Way of Life. Any feedback and questions would be greatly appreciated.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Driving on the Left Side of the Road

Cathy and I have rented a car to do a bit of touring around western Ireland. This is the third time we have rented a car in Ireland. Admittedly, the first time we drove while here in 2006, I was the one who scrapped off the passenger's side mirror. A common mistake by Americans I was told when I turned in the car.

In 2012, Cathy drove for six weeks down the M roads (the few four lane highways), the N roads (two lane roads with a stripe down the middle), the R roads (supposed two lanes roads with no stripe down the middle), and farm roads (one lane roads where all cars must back up when farm equipment approaches). I too have driven these roads but with less experience than Cathy. This year I am doing the driving because of her knee problems.

I find it off putting when Americans talk about "driving on the wrong side of the road." Personally, I find driving on the left side of the road more appealing and natural. Shifting gears with the left hand has been no bother. The clutch, brake, and gas are the same. All the gadgets around the steering wheel are the same as well. I do pay more attention than when driving in America, something I should take home with me. Being too familiar with driving causes us to take much for granted. Evidently a danger to avoid.

I used to think driving on the left side of the road fit my personality, spirituality, religion, and politics. Maybe in the institutional senses it does because religion and politics define themselves in rights and lefts. Those institutions are linear and most likely to find their end in the near future (next 50-100 years). Regarding personality and spirituality, not so much is that clear. There are no rights and lefts in either of personality or spirituality—the Self, the being of personality and spirituality, is itself, spiral in nature, held in boundaries by the nature of the great Circle, the Mother of the Earth.

The personality, as defined by Carl Jung, is the inherent combination of the pair of four opposites, extrovert/introvert, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, judging/perceiving. Because the pairs are preferences, we can move towards integration of the completeness of each side of the pairs into our personality. We can learn to best to be an extrovert while accessing our introversion. An integrated person, Jung would say, does so through the process of individuation, accessing all sides of the pairs. Something that can happen, with intentional work, in the second-half of life. Such work creates a spiral effect towards maturation. We move from our basic preferences as children towards a full acceptance of all the preference pairs into the full action of life. Of course, that could be considered driving on the left. Jung, as well as others, have said that the majority of humanity never moves from the first half of life into the second, nor do they individuate. Too much work, I suppose?

The spiral of spirituality, in my opinion, is less easily identified. To be spiritual, is to seek a relationship with the world of the unseen—where that which is greater than the Self is the Divine of all that was, is, and will be. We know little of the unseen. Some crave to intimately know more. The relationship between the divine and the individual is a dance that can be playful and the same time, extremely dangerous (a pair of opposites). The dance takes place as the individual and the divine reveal their pair of opposites to the other. I expose my shadow and my light to the divine. The divine is equally as vulnerable.

In order to understand all of creation, the divine has the completeness of all the pair of opposites. Not just the personality pairs, but all the archetypal pairs, good and evil, light and dark, male and female, including the pairs of which we have no concept. How else would the divine be The Divine without all of it? As humans we only contain, or relate to, or understand, some of the pairs. We are individuals and have our own pair of opposites, some we share with others—yet we do not have all of the pairs—that is simply too much for the human spirit. We wrestle with our shadow and light in front of the divine—the individuation process of becoming an integrated person. Notably, in Answer to Job, Jung writes that God is in the process of individuation as well, wrestling with God's own work with the pairs. (I'll have to write about his book another time.)

May be, the experience of the spiritual spiral, the self, the integration, leading to individuation and the Self, is the most real of all experiences, the ethereal manifested in the tangible. To breathe, taste, smell, feel, touch the divine is to know the true Self in the second half of life. Such, says Jung, is alchemy of the soul. To begin the alchemical process of the soul, start by driving on the left side of the road.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Holding Hands and Singing Songs

In 2012, I walked the first-half of the Wicklow Way with a few companions. The second-half of the Way and then across Ireland, I walked about 300 miles by myself. This year I walked the Wicklow, about 100 miles, with a group of twelve fellow pilgrims. A walking pilgrimage by myself as opposed to walking with a group has some obvious differences, while some are more subtle.

Walking for eight hours in silence is wonderful and at the same time daunting. Sometimes it's good to have another person to talk to; especially to share thoughts about the magnificent scenery, the tough walking, the unexpected surfacing of emotions. I'm an introvert, so walking alone is easy. But making pilgrimage with this group touched my soul in ways in which being alone could never have happened.

I found it very helpful to have other eyes looking for the Way markers, "the yellow hiking man," particularly those times the marker was hiding in the overgrowth. Having someone else looking at the map with me was assuring we were indeed going in the right direction.

At the end of the day it was fantastic to hear each other process the walk. Reflecting on the day's hike while exhausted shed new light on my own experience. Everyone brings their own perspective.My story is incomplete without their story.

Each morning we gathered to tape up sore knees and bandage blistered feet. Fortunately, we had a nurse and a former athletic coach along to do a lot of the tending to injuries. Caring for the walking wounded builds a bond between pilgrims like few other experiences.

The last two times I've walked the Wicklow Way, I walked over White HIll with other people. Both times we walked in dense fog and a driving rain. We could barely see the path we were walking on. That experience built a camaraderie of shared misery. This time we walked across White Hill on a perfect day, billowy multicolored clouds, light breeze, cool temperatures for a steep climb. The view was heavenly. I saw things I could not see before. And I was able to share the experience, fresh and new, with fellow travelers. I am so happy I could be with others on that day. I couldn't imagine that my joy was so obvious except that several of them commented about the big smile on my face.

The thing that brought the most laughter to my heart was listening to two couples sing their own lyrics to familiar tunes about the Wicklow Way. God, they made me laugh. And that feels good when you've got three more hours of grueling hike ahead. Of course, watching them then walk on ahead holding hands brought a tear of joy to my eyes. Love is power in so many ways. Holding hands and singing songs. Sounds so simple and child like. I like it and plan on doing it more myself with my love.

This trip was the first time I have reached the end of the pilgrimage with other people. I had my own sense of completion. Yet, that personal feeling was nothing compared to the immense satisfaction I enjoyed in watching others accomplish a goal who many thought was not possible. Even if some of them never doubted they would finish, all of us had spent a tremendous amount of time and money in preparing to go on this journey together. In witnessing those folks realize their achievement of a rare feat, I felt a glow in my soul that was matched on their faces. I want to hold that moment in my mind's eye for the remainder of my life; it feels that good.

I'm glad I walked on pilgrimage in solitude. The experience gave me new perspective about myself. Still, I am overjoyed that I went on pilgrimage with this group. Their experiences enriched my walk, touched my soul, made me laugh, brought tears to my eyes, taught me much about life and myself, and stirred within me the continued desire to keep living life as a pilgrimage.

Walking with others in pilgrimage is a microcosm of community building. We shared an experience that we each must do alone. We must carry our own pack. But, there are times we need help. Those times, we need others to step forward and do more than feel sorry for us—we need someone to carry a part of our load. We need others to care that we are hurting and then do something about it—bandage our wounds and check in with us on a regular basis. There are times on the trail when you run out of water and food. At those times we count on someone else to share what they have with us. There are times on the trail you want to be left alone—we all must sensitive to those moments. And there are times we need someone to listen to our complaining—we pray others will listen. Walking a hundred miles through the Wicklow Mountains in eight days is the compressed experience of living in community. I know I learned a lot of during those 100 miles.

As the walking of the pilgrimage ended, there was another dramatic learning for me. Within hours we began to go our separate ways. Some went home to Phoenix. Others to Seattle. Cathy and I stayed in Ireland. The walking pilgrimage community came to an end. All communities come to an end. While that may be something we don't want to face or acknowledge—it is a fact of life. We each will continue to live with what we learned, cherish what we experienced, and will be better people for being with each other. Because this community existed and has ended, now, new opportunities for community will emerge. Those communities will also be better for what we learned while being in this pilgrimage community.

Currently I am planning on walking with another group in the summer of 2015. I pray my body holds up for years and more pilgrimages to come. There is so much more to experience and learn by being on pilgrimage. Keep walking.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Afterglow or Hangover, the Day After the Walk

Van Morrison's song "There'll be days like this," was playing on the taxi radio as we made our way from the bus station to our B&B in Dublin. Seems like a year since being in Dublin while it's only been 8 days. Those 8 days were spent walking the 100 miles of the Wicklow Way with 12 fellow pilgrims.

Today, I can't distinguish the overwhelming feeling of the afterglow of walking in the quiet of the forest from the hangover of doing the hard work of pilgrimage. While you might think I had too many Guinness last night in celebration with my companions, I did not. My heart is overflowing with the light of joy that comes from being with 12 other people who completed the walk and the work of their own personal pilgrimage. Seeing them shout in jubilation, leap into each other's arms with gratitude, share tears of satisfaction, and beam with a new found confidence from doing something they feared not possible, makes my heart flow with love for what the experience has brought them. The hangover feeling comes from my own sense of having worked hard to create this space for them and for me, yet knowing the work continues. The hangover comes with the depression of leaving something I love so much, maybe to return another day. Too much reflection, however, the day after the walk, is dangerous. Holding spiritual space for others while they do their work exacts a toll of soul energy. I feel much like I felt when I was a new parent—ecstatic with being a new father, exhausted from too little sleep. Like most first time parents, I was both excited and frightened by the future for my child. I know that each of my fellow pilgrims will have to spend some considerable time renegotiating with themselves how they will now live their lives after making such a soul trek.

They will return home to family and friends changed from the work of pilgrimage. Each will have left part of themselves on the trail, while at the same time, they have picked up something new. The experience of unpacking the pilgrimage will take weeks, months, maybe years. I know for myself, I am still working through my Ireland coast-to-coast walk two years ago. Now I have compounded that pilgrimage with this one. Each person who walked has been affected in a different way. While we shared the same path, we walked alone with our own burdens. What we each learned will be unique to our own experience. Still, at the same time, walking together, we gathered new insights from one another. Pilgrimage is as complicated as life itself, you are alone and at the same time, not alone.

Of course, some things we wish we could have left behind, we could not. Just this morning, while trying to purchase a train ticket to Limerick, I became very frustrated and angry with the machine that would not take my credit card. Then it demanded cash in exact change. I got so flustered that I made a costly mistake of buying a roundtrip ticket for today, which I did not intend to do. I didn't realize I bought the round trip ticket until I was on the train. I later asked the conductor, but was told it was too late for a refund. You would think after five trips to Ireland and several train trips I would have enough experience not to make such a blunder and especially not to get so upset. Yet, wherever you go, there you'll be. So, what's all this talk about pilgrimage transformation? Was all that walking for nothing? Have I not changed one bit?

Part of transformational work is to be transparent and vulnerable. Being honest about my frailties is a matter of being changed by the work of living life as a pilgrim. Pilgrimage forces the pilgrim to leave behind our identities of veneer we use as defenses and enter into the process of letting the pilgrimage strip away the pretense of whatever mask I am wearing. The face is unshaven, the make-up has disappeared. The nearest restroom is right behind the next available tree. The same sweaty, dirty clothes are worn days without washing. The pain brings out the complaints. The weariness strains the social tolerance. Somewhere along the way, I am who I am, there is no hiding me from myself or anyone else. There, at that moment, I can truly see myself. Then the work of pilgrimage begins. I must accept myself. Work on myself. And keep walking. The pack has not gotten lighter nor the road smoother. And I must deal with it all. Such is the reality of life and the demanding work of transformation. For me, this kind of work is worth the payoff, a dynamic charge of the soul, anamorphosis. Doing the work, over time, in small increments, a significant change begins to happen and a new part of myself begins to emerge.

But for the transformation to happen the pilgrim must continue the work long after the walking has stopped. Patience is required. And the ugly truth about who I am must be confronted by my own self. There in the light and heat of the day, change can and most likely will take place.

To my fellow pilgrims—be gentle with yourselves. Walk slow. Take time to rest. Breathe. Process. Be well. You are loved. Until we walk together again, we are always walking with the souls of one another.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Shillalagh to Clonegal, The Wicklow Way Day 8

Five of our pilgrims walked the 14 miles from Shillalagh to Clonegal on sheer will. They were determined to finish the last leg of the Wicklow Way. Motivated by the year they had spent in preparation, the money it cost to go on pilgrimage, and their personal desire to drink deeply from the spirits of transformation, they walked despite being in severe pain. They also wanted to taste the best Guinness ever. No beer tastes better than one drank in celebration of the completion of the Wicklow Way at Osbourne's Pub. The pub has been in existence since the mid-1700's, right next to the public hanging stone. At Osbourne's, once you purchase your first pint of course, they will print an official certification of completion. As fine as the certificate is, however, the pictures in front of the Wicklow Way sign in Clonegal are the best.

My first complete Wicklow, which was in 2012, I finished alone. Then the next day I started the South Leinster Way and another 250 miles in my walk of Ireland coast-to-coast. My feelings that day were mixed. Yes, I had completed the famous Wicklow Way, but my journey still had 16 walking days ahead. While I was tired, I would not know what being fully spent was to mean.

Finishing the walk today was an unexpectedly emotional experience. For one, Cathy finished the walk that seemed near impossible. In the last few months she endured diverticulitis, then a broken toe. On this day she woke barely able to walk. Her knee buckled at every step. Somehow within the next few hours she gained enough strength to decide to walk the day's 14 miles. She finished in jubilation just yards behind the rest of our pilgrims. Our daughter and son-in-law became her full support team, telling her stories, jokes, and singing songs to distract her. I am deeply grateful for their love and caring spirit.

The other emotional part of the finish for me was to watch the delightful glee on the faces of our other pilgrims. Each carried their own burdens, heavy packs, blisters, painful feet that would have stopped most others, and damaged knees that would make the strong flinch, none of these obstacles was enough to deter these courageous souls. They walked their personal pilgrimage with steady determination. At the finish, they shouted in jubilation, gave each other bear hugs, high-fives, did push-ups in full pack, took pictures, and shed tears of joy. My tears felt good.

The Wicklow Way is a mighty test of endurance, strength, and will. The mystic trail lures many but few take the challenge. The unpredictable weather and the grueling hills are not to be taken lightly. To my fellow pilgrims, I love you, one and all. Be well. Travel home safe. Know that the work continues. The pilgrimage is not over. Keep walking.

Erik Bolt
Jenn Botham
Blair Braden
Rebecca Brinkman
Alicia Escobar
Phil Escobar
Nick Ellis
Rhonda Kelso
Candace Lewis
Danielle Lowe
Cathy Stafford
Becky Williamson

Moyne to Shillalagh, Day 7 of the Wicklow Way

Most of our group stayed last night at Kyle's Farm House. The B&B is the home of the owners of a true working farm. When the hostess told us the eggs were farm fresh, it was easy to imagine she gathered them this morning. The evening dinner and the morning breakfast were exquisite. We needed those calories for the day ahead.

Father Sky was gentle with us today. The temperature dropped ten degrees, the sun was hidden behind beautiful white, blue, and purple clouds and we were covered with a constant breeze. Today's sixteen miles, while exacting their toll, were much easier to endure.

The path took us directly out of the farm house and up the side of a sweeping hill covered on one side with pastures of sheep and the other side with waist high ferns and grass. We walked through more hues of green than any giant box of Crayons could contain. The trail took us through the dark woods, down across more fields, this time populated with milking cows. We even encountered a peacock who seemed curious about our journey. We rested on a hillside to eat our lunch and take in a panoramic view of where we had walked the first half of the day.

The miles have taken their toll on our pilgrims. Blisters, sore knees, stiff backs, a sprained ankle, lots of aching and sore feet are accumulating. The last five of today's sixteen miles were over tarmac roads, the hardest surface for distressed legs and feet. Every morning we spend thirty minutes bandaging feet and taping ankles and feet. Our group has been been troupers in the face of their challenges. But, as we face the final day of the walk, I am concerned about the physical wear and tear on our group. Tonight I have been praying for healing grace and mercy for those who are struggling with the worst of the injuries. All the while, from experience, I am also praying for what the new day will bring. Fresh experiences and more challenges. Such is the Way of the pilgrim.

Thank you to all of those many who have praying for us. You will read these last two posts a few days after the fact. Internet has been very spotty.

Glenmalure to Moyne, Day 6 of the Wicklow Way

Could it be too hot in Ireland? Evidently. Especially for walking 17 miles. While today was great tour bus and picture taking weather, I think a bit of Ireland's beauty and mystique were obscured by the sun.

We began the day by poising for a picture at the official halfway marker of the Wicklow Way. Each morning we pray for Father sky to be gentle with us as we make our journey through the Wicklow Mountains. The cloudless sky and 70 plus degree heat and high humidity was almost too much. Making three elevation ascent and descents of 1300 feet each didn't help much either. But our group persevered.

The unpredictable weather and the constantly changing terrain are parts of the challenges of the Wicklow Way. This is my third walk across these mountains and this is the first time I have experienced five days of walking without any precipitation. Indeed, I had told our group to anticipate wet and windy weather. So far, they only been wet from their own perspiration while they have given thanks for every simple breeze.

Every pilgrimage is unique. I have walked these roads before, but the "path of pilgrimage" is much different. The trail has changed in some places. The weather has been a surprise. I am not traveling alone. Each day brings new challenges and something important for me to learn. Pilgrimage is a living alchemy for the soul. We risk putting what is valuable to us in the pilgrimage's vessel of transformation. Then the vessel is heated by the walk. On hope is the weight of our burden's are metaphorically burned away by the heat, while at the same time, something new emerges. I am experiencing this process once again. But we are not finished.