“What is your favorite word?”
Like a literary Rorschach test, this question, offered by a quiet and thoughtful member of my book club, stopped me mid-sentence a few years back. I sensed that this moment was a gift offered by a wiser soul in hopes of popping open a window that had been painted shut in my brain. I seriously love words, conversational to literary, but at that point in my life I was moving so fast that I was never stopping long enough to simply enjoy any words. I was so stumped, but I answered quickly, sensing that trying to overthink this would actually shellac the window tighter. “Peripatetic,” I almost shouted. “Oh, Pilgrimage! Wait … Empyrean!”
OK, so I didn’t follow directions and keep myself to one word, but I did now have three little verbal projective pebbles tumbling in a little pocket of my heart. Over the next few months, I would stick my hand in there at odd moments between the chaotic pleasures of attending to my children and the organized chaos of supporting a spouse in politics, hoping to find them turned to polished talismans that would tell me how to get back to some place, some center, some self which I had realized was getting lost amid a life in overdrive.
The first word speaks of wandering. The next, of traveling to a sacred place. The last is a beautiful way to say Heaven. Whoa. Rather big aspirations for a lady who had to get the cupcakes to Kyrie’s kindergarten birthday celebration, along with about a million other prosaic distractions for which I nevertheless knew to be very grateful. Still, I also knew that we were all moving at an unhealthy pace, that my marriage was in quiet crisis, and that my efforts to amend both weren’t working. Through all the change and challenge I intuited were imminent, I deeply hoped to find a way to be both the mother I wanted to be and the woman I wanted to become without the one contradicting the other.
Before motherhood, my greatest joy, beyond books, had been traveling solo. Getting out of my own head and into other worlds had always been my best antidote for being out of balance. So, with two kids in school as the New Year began, I began to read the New York Times Travel section again. In February, I was dazzled by photos of contemporary art made only of ice and snow in northern Finland. “The Snow Show, or How Tadao Ando and Zaha Hadid Spent Their Winter Vacations.” Yes! Art, my third favorite thing! Conceptual and ephemeral art, no less. I was so going to go, and I was SO going to find myself.
After a business trip to New York, I found myself blowing a significant wad of frequent flier miles as I landed in Oulu, Finland, and began driving further north. A lot further north, and into a permanently indigo sky, some seriously scary snow squalls and, at first glimpse, a whole bunch of nothing going on.
A Laplander in the article had explained, “In summer, we fish and make love. In winter, we fish less.” It was the dead of winter, and I had nobody to make love with. The place, and the process of getting there, felt like the perfect metaphor for the difficult things that I was grappling with back home. I was also indulging in a fantasy common to those avoiding the really hard parts of growing up. I was imagining myself as a burdened pilgrim who, because of my great idealism and spiritual tenacity, would nonetheless step out of these dark woods and be transformed by the transcendental experience of Art in a land far, far away from book clubs and cupcakes and gut-wrenching life changes. Who would merit a big Cosmic Answer to my big Cosmic Questions just because I had made such a big deal out of them. Who traipsed over the frozen River Ounasjoki in the town of Rovaniemi during the only sliver of dawn on March 21st, 2004 to learn that great and visionary art …had melted. Well, not all of it, but enough of it to make a really great cosmic point. I have learned to truly appreciate the times when life says nanny nanny foo foo, for therein lie the big answers that were there all along. What was right in front of me was rough around the edges at least, broken in many places and was not going to last much longer, but it was also very beautiful and very meaningful and very worth it.
The root of the word “peripatetic” references Aristotle’s practice of walking back and forth, wandering around while teaching or, in my case, learning. For “pilgrimage,” the dictionary adds, “SEE note at journey, as in ‘life viewed as a journey.’” “Empyrean” derives from pur, Greek for fire.
With a little speck of fire in the sky and a whole lot of road ahead, I smiled, turned around, and went home.