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Writing Rituals: Staying Grounded During Busy Times

This post originally appeared on BooksByWomen.org as “Five Weeks To Book Launch And How My Writing Practice Keeps Me Grounded.”

I am a woman with many morning practices, from skin care to yoga and meditation to blending a perfected breakfast smoothie, from walking my dog to writing long hand in my journal.  Needless to say, I need to rise and shine pretty early in order to squeeze in these beloved rituals. Very often, I laugh at myself, sleep still in my eyes, clinging to this crazy booting up process, but it’s a proven source of comfort and a very peaceful way to start the day. 

In addition, I endeavor to maintain a habitual writing practice, ideally beginning not long after the journal writing.  Oh, but there’s coffee to be made, and the email inbox, and social media posting to be done. Five weeks away from the launch of my second novel, The Nine,  I am more apt than ever to be consumed with checking reviews, scheduling appearances, and crafting newsletters for my mailing list. Many people tell me they don’t even attempt working on a new project during this intense phase of pre-publication book promotion. For me, however, it’s become a safe haven. 

This summer, in an effort to focus just as much on the generative side of my nature as I knew I would on the promotional side (remembering my experience with my debut novel, Eden)  I did three things: 1) I resuscitated my writing group, 2) I registered for a 6 week online course through GrubStreet called plotting your novel and 3) I joined a cabin in Camp Nanowrimo with seven other writers who are constantly checking in!  All of this is in the name of accountability – sort of like setting three alarm clocks when you have an early morning flight… but given my propensity to be the good student, this strategy has worked! I’m not checking preorder trends on AuthorCentral twenty times a day or obsessing with how I might use social media better. This plan has kept me from bugging my publicist as well which I’m sure makes her happy. Basically it’s ensured I keep the part of the writer’s life I love most– the writing.

Promoting a new book (and yourself really) engages the ego and sets the mind whirring.  Writing or revising early drafts of a work-in-process, however, comes from a place of humility.  I find that spending a part of the day in each place makes for a healthy internal balance. In addition, working on something new reduces the stakes around the book launch.  When that pesky internal critic starts worrying about The Nine’s reception, I fend it off in the knowledge that my writing career is just beginning and based on my daily, accumulating word count, there will be more books in my future.

Jeanne-Blasberg-morning-writing-practice-ritualI’m sure many authors read the above like it’s obvious – of course you keep up a writing practice come hell or high water.  That’s what you do. But I bet there are others reading this who like the reminder, indie authors like me who manage much of their own promotion, schedule their own book appearances, and do a ton of footwork – authors like me who are relatively new to this and might lose sleep wondering if there is something else that should be done to give a book the best chance at being noticed.   I don’t want to live the next several months with that chatter in my head and the consequential lack of focus. 

This summer I’ve promised to keep my phone at bay and to stay offline for that first hour or so at my desk.  Even if emails from Oprah or Reese are waiting to be answered. My goal is to bang out 500-1000 new words first thing and report to my cabin-mates. It might be a modest amount, but the fact that new characters with a story to tell are coming alive for me provides a more authentic excitement.  As these characters are developing in their own right, they are also reminding me, “You are a writer! You have more in you! It’s all going to be okay!”

Japanese house and lush garden

How the Japanese Tea Ceremony Mirrors the Author/Reader Relationship

On our recent trip to Asia I barely scratched the surface of omotenashi, the Japanese spirit of hospitality, but I did have the opportunity to participate in a tea ceremony which gave me a glimpse. As I lay awake that night combatting jet lag, I began to see parallels between the author/reader relationship and the tea ceremony. This might be the type of idea that only seems brilliant at 3am… but here goes…

Omotenashi

The concept of service or hospitality runs very deep in Japan, the core being that each human encounter is unique and that every moment is once-in-a-lifetime. Each meeting, therefore, is entered into with great planning and intention. The height of the practice of omotenashi is a traditional tea ceremony. I must thank my dear friend Andy Goldfarb for introducing me to this concept before our departure.

The Tea Ceremony

The interaction begins before the guest arrives – with the host’s planning. She takes great care with the aesthetics: selecting the tea service, arranging the flowers, hanging a scroll. The details may consume the host’s thoughts before the meeting, but they are invisible to the guest, done without any expectation for appreciation.

When the guest arrives, the host kneels in front of a shrine to prepare the matcha with prescribed movements. She takes the tea vessel in her left hand and ladles the perfect amount of water over the green tea powder with fluidity and grace. She then rapidly whisks the mixture back and forth (approximately fifty times) until it is topped with a froth just so. She bows before passing the cup to the first guest who also shows great humility and appreciation for the final product. The guest is even expected to enjoy the last sip of tea with an audible slurp.

foamy green matcha teaThe Ritual of Writing

As is the case with creating any art, there is a moment when the artist (or novelist in my case) begins to consider her audience. Revisions and edits to early drafts serve the piece, making language more clear, and conveying ideas with nuance and subtlety. Achieving refinement and simplicity requires the writer do more work. It’s not always what the host or writer does, but sometimes what she decides not to do that makes all the difference. Just like spending time selecting the correct tea set, the writer does not expect nor necessarily desire the reader to know everything that went into the preparation. It’s an unspoken contract between us that  immense intention was involved.

One of the most satisfying things about writing fiction is using my imagination as an instrument. I picture a cloud of energy forming then percolating in my brain, finding its way out through my fingers typing on my keyboard – sort of like whisking green tea into a froth? I work to perfect my craft, ladling just enough action to mix with character detail. When the final product is ready, it is my offering to readers.A house and garden in Japan

Readers take the vessel in hand and turn it, appreciating the cover art. If they are willing,they consume it, and voila: my imagination and stream of energy finds a path to theirs. If they really enjoy the book – and hopefully they do – they might finish with a big healthy slurp that sounds something like a five star review.

So like the master of the tea ceremony, working to tend the aesthetic of her tea garden, I sit down to write each day, aware that each sentence I craft is unique to this moment, and attuned to my experiences. I bow in humility to each reader who, like the guest at the ceremony, is willing to accept this version of omotenashi and drink from my cup.

Jeanne with She Writes Press authors at the Brooklyn Book Festival

Women Writers over a Certain Age

The following article was originally published on BooksByWomen.org.

A friend suggested recently I write an essay about how one went about being taken seriously as a female writer over fifty. My first reaction to this suggestion was actually surprise, and my second was wonder …. maybe she didn’t take me seriously? I sat back in my chair and regarded her more closely.

No, the suggestion was definitely intended as a compliment, and I got the feeling as we sat there that she hoped I had some special secret. The truth was, I hadn’t stopped to think about it.

Her suggestion reminded me of the time a father on the sidelines of a girls lacrosse game asked my husband what we’d done to make our daughter so hungry for the net. My husband just shrugged, “That’s how she came out.” Likewise, my ability to pursue a writing career at fifty, with no real credentials to speak of, might also be a matter of good instincts or good fortune (neither of which do I take for granted). After some consideration, I’ve come up with some pointers that might be useful for anyone embarking on a similar “under-dog” journey.

If you want others to take you seriously, take yourself seriously.

Let me rephrase that, don’t take yourself seriously, that’s unattractive. Take your writing seriously. I sit at my desk every morning, I decline invitations. I write whether I feel like it or not. I call myself a writer. I introduce myself as a writer. I talk about my books. I am not shy.

I accept invitations and view every opportunity to discuss my book as a blessing. I have fully immersed myself in the literary community in Boston. I attend readings. I take classes. I am workshopped, and I accept feedback. I blog and submit essays for publication. If I am writing I tell other people not to bother me. My business cards read “author.” I attend conferences. I approach people. I watch what the authors I admire do and I try to emulate them. When I am not writing, I am reading. I review books.

Don’t compare yourself to others.

While a traditional book deal with one of the big five is very prestigious and the gold standard in publishing, there are many other ways to connect with the reading public if that is your goal. Starting later in life, I made the decision that chasing prestige and prizes couldn’t be my priority. From day one connecting with readers was my singular focus, through my books, my blog, and through social media. I might not have an MFA, but I’ve had a relatively eventful life that provides plenty of material and emotional knowledge to infuse into my writing. I don’t think there is a writing program in the world that can teach what it feels like to love, to give birth, to lose, to bounce back, or to choose compassion.

Reject those who are rejecting you.

I decided to stop banging my head against the wall called the New York publishing world. After many years of rejection from New York agents and editors, I decided it was a party I wasn’t likely to be invited to. Luckily, in this digital age, in this age of disrupters, I was able to find an alternate path to publication and have never looked back. I found a hybrid publishing company called She Writes Press founded for women who have life trajectories and aspiration similar to mine. We help and inspire each other and through our collective success, motivate each other. My sisterhood has provided me with strength and more drive than I had when I thought this struggle was mine alone. When EDEN finally made it out in the world, it was embraced by many readers. That was all I ever wanted.

Accept the fact that creating art requires vulnerability.

Vulnerability and authenticity are necessary not only in creating art, but in creating a life with connections (and that includes connections with readers). Readers have a very accurate bullshit meter and will dismiss work that doesn’t feel real very quickly. Brené Brown, renowned social worker and author, teaches in her book Daring Greatly that putting yourself out there is essential. Being vulnerable, she writes, is the key to making connections. When you embrace vulnerability, you are also expressing your sense of self-worthiness. Don’t confuse this with ego, it is the opposite.

When you put yourself out there, when you allow yourself to be truly seen, others stop and take notice. They admire the honesty. They equate vulnerability with courage. They say “Wow.” The hardest thing about putting yourself out there is letting go of the worry you aren’t good enough and the fear of being judged.

In the weeks before EDEN was released I could barely get out of bed in the morning, I was so overcome by nerves. But if you are putting the work in (see pointer #1) you needn’t worry. Whether your writing career started in your twenties or your fifties, strive to tell your authentic story with your authentic voice. You will make connections. People will respond positively. I struggled whether to list this as pointer number one or pointer number four because it’s a necessary concept from the start, but it is also an evolving realization. I also have to think this is that secret something my friend was searching for when she suggested I write this article.

A natural arc of red stone in front of a sprawling vista.

Passover Reflections on Moab

I’ve been back to BostoA vista of the red rocks of Moab.n for a couple weeks but there are images from Utah that I’m carrying close through this cold and grey New England spring.  Not really images, more like colors: white snow, blue sky, and green trees…. And then there’s the red.

We took a couple of days while two of our children visited Park City and made the drive to Southeastern Utah to visit Moab and its famous geologic wonders and national parks. Its red earth reflected the sun, mesmerizing us as canyon walls turned orange at times and at others,  maroon under a passing shower. We drove past geology that twisted into spires, spun arches, and bore canyons. We hiked and scampered and climbed like little children,  the silty red dust rising on our calves and sneaking into our shoes, caking even, under my fingernails.  We shed layers of clothing in the warm sun and when it set we luxuriated under the full moon. Moab was magnificent and if we could have stayed longer, we would have.  There was so much to see, to do. And even as I felt the pull to stay, there was satisfaction in just having made the trip.  It had been a crazy idea thrown out during dinner early in the week, heralding the type of enthusiasm on a Monday I expected to fizzle very easily by Thursday.

We drove back to Park City and then Salt Lake where people boarded planes, returning to school or on business trips. When my month in Utah was complete, I returned to Boston for a writing conference and getting back in the swing of real life.  Looking forward to Passover and in preparation for our Seder, I considered the significance of Moab in the Exodus story.  I should mention giving sites biblical names is common in Utah, as Mormons see themselves akin to Jews.  Not just because they believe themselves to be descendants of Ephraim (a son of Joseph), but in that their history of persecution and long search for a promised land mirrored the Jews’ wandering in the desert for forty years. And not only is there a Great Salt Lake in Utah similar to the Dead Sea, there’s an Eden and Zion National Park, a Jordan River and a Mt Carmel, …. So what was it about Moab that was nagging at me?

Interestingly, the word “Moab” is defined as either “of the father” or a “beautiful place.” BeFamily walking through the red rocks of Moab.sides being the birthplace of Ruth (one of my biblical heroines), it is also the last bit of wilderness where the Israelites stayed before entering the Promised Land. It is where Moses’ Exodus story ended, where he died and was buried, never able to enter Canaan himself.

Our touring party of four hadn’t recalled much of Moab, Utah’s namesake before making the trip from Park City. Thinking about it in light of our Passover tradition, however, I can’t help search for meaning.  Moab was the last place we would be together before going in four separate directions. It was a place we would observe a yarzheit, a place we would experience the super moon on the vernal equinox.  We all felt the pull to drive down there, I won’t go as far as calling it magnetic, but we were certainly on a mission. And I can’t forget that red, primitive earth, harkening the name Edom, evoking the birthplace of man.

For us, it was a moment when we united and regrouped before moving on. It was a place where we were allowed to act like children before entering the adult world again. It was a place to wonder and dream and remember, and also to recognize how small we are and how short life is.  It was a place of awe.

Student's bikes on a snowy campus day.

The Price of a College Admission Scandal

I had to pull my  jaw off the floor reading the recent reports of parents and college admissions consultants gaming the system. Even though the college admissions process has never been ‘fair,’ the hacks these people created stooped to a whole new level. I should qualify this post with the fact that as a fourth generation applicant to Smith College, I was a beneficiary of the uneven playing field myself.  Even though I was admitted to equally fine institutions, I attended Smith as a legacy. What’s more, all three of my children were recruited athletes to Ivy League institutions, competing in squash, and leading and captaining their respective college teams.  Although they were qualified candidates, the ability to bypass the general application pool was an enormous boon. These schools admit about 220 recruited athletes per year across all sports whereas the general application pool is flooded with upwards of 30,000 people. Tough odds for even the best of the best.

As in life, systemic privilege has always existed with college admissions, although typically more subtly, reserved for those in the know, those tipped off early as to how the game works. (I’ll go ahead and throw myself in that group.)  The parents who worked with “The Key,” however,  were made aware of a “side door,” and did whatever it took to gain entrance at the eleventh hour.  It was like a big, bad case of cutting in the carpool line. The transcripts included in the indictment depict parents who had no problem with the six-digit price tag for an admissible test score, on the condition their children were none the wiser, as if betraying a child’s trust was fine as long as it went undiscovered. One father even laughed at his child innocently assuming he’d achieved a good ACT score on his own.

In my forthcoming novel, The Nine, Hannah Webber is a middle class mother who prescribes to the slow and steady approach (much like mine): nightly dinners, homework sessions, attendance at sports practice, healthy breakfasts, school pick-ups and drop-offs or at least a best effort.  There is mundanity to the routine, a year-in-year-out scheduling of parent-teacher conferences, supporting kids through ups and downs, but always emphasizing hard work and doing one’s best above all else.  Consistency. Trust. Listening.  It isn’t always easy. And again, probably speaks to the privilege of a childhood where a parent is at home to provide the steady support. But just like many parents today, Hannah Webber will realize even her best efforts aren’t enough when pitted against parents with money.

Privilege is pervasive in reality as well as fiction, but the recent revelation of cheating has provided our culture with a moment – not only to gawk at the defendants’ insane behavior, but to evaluate the status quo and the spectrum of admissions abuses: how donations to schools are treated, why athletics and athletes should matter so much, how unlimited test taking time and bogus doctor diagnoses has become a thing.  It’s an important conversation, but I hope the point that hits home the hardest for parents (including Hannah Webber) is that integrity, honesty, and a relationship with their children built on trust will always be worth more than any diploma!!

 

Jeanne M. Blasberg, author of "Eden", and friends at book club

Book Club: It’s Okay if You Don’t Discuss the Book

The following article was originally published on NovelNetwork.com.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the disparaging comment that book clubs drink more wine than talk about that book. I’ve visited many book clubs since the release of EDEN, and people who think it is just an excuse to drink wine don’t get it. Book clubs are for readers but the meetings aren’t just to talk about the book. In my own book club, we spend a higher percentage of our meeting time talking about other things.

And that’s okay.

When a group of friends make book selections and read simultaneously, it’s like traveling to the same place, meeting the same people, entering a common consciousness no less. When they meet later “to discuss,” enjoying food and drink, the contents of the book are almost reminisced about as opposed to critically analyzed. Some people have fond memories and some thought something was missing, some have foggy memories, and some got stuck on a particular issue, but we’ve taken the same trip and that’s pretty cool.

The common experience is what matters, setting the groundwork for a deeper dive into the themes of the book. Bonds of friendship are formed when we share experiences and ideas, when we discuss hypotheticals. A book that stimulates great discussion (tangential or not) is a good book club pick.

Better to tear apart a fictional character than to gossip, and better to discuss a place you’ve read about than to sit in envy of one person’s exotic travels. The conversation at your book club may not always stay on the one thing you have in common that month (the book) but it is a starting point to many important conversations.

It is fun to imagine friends lying in bed reading or driving in their cars listening to the same books. If you’re like me details about the book will come up in snippets of conversation when we bump into each other on the sidewalk or at the gym. I might even text a friend “loving it” or “hating it” mid-month. Often, by the time the book club meets, the temperature of the group has been determined, influencing how much time we spend on the book or how quickly we go there.

Picking a good cross section of genre, our group has found, is important. Traveling to a variety of lands offers an opportunity to compare and contrast stories as well as authors’ styles. So no, we aren’t always talking about the book, we are already a few steps beyond, on to the next step, talking about where the book took us.

Competitive Parenting

Competitive Parenting: No One Wins

The following article was originally published on GrownandFlown.com.

It’s not like a gymnastics competition where the judges hold up scores at the end of a floor routine. It’s not like you can “stick the landing” either. It’s not like the announcement comes over the PA system: “A perfect 10! She’s achieved the perfect 10!”  No, a mother doesn’t stand on a podium, beaming at the end of the day, while the grand maternal order of the universe hangs a gold medal from her neck, declaring her the best of all time.

Hey, I’ll admit I played. Big time. This is a confessional and I was all in. I remember one year-end Prize Day when my kids all won the highest academic honors for their respective grades (I think my youngest was in Kindergarten, but hey) and a rival mother with four brilliant children passed me filing out of the assembly and whispered, “Three for three, I’m impressed.”

It’s embarrassing, and shameful but I’m just warning you once it starts, it’s hard to stop.

I’ve spent time reflecting on this (written a novel in fact) and am going to open the kimono a little further here to share some of why I fell prey. And since everything gets blamed on mothers, I’ll blame this one on mine. But really, as the only child of an alcoholic, dysfunctional marriage, my role in that happy little threesome was to put on a good face, achieve plenty and show the world everything was really okay. Not just okay, super! It took a long time to let the role of chief marketing officer go.

What was less unique to me and more of a universal experience, I believe, was choosing to be a stay at home mom in an era when many of my female friends were remaining in the workforce. After ten years of holding interesting and upwardly mobile positions in finance and retail, I decided to stay home after the birth of my youngest. Three babies in 60 months, just like clockwork, back then I was still trying to win points for Harvard Business School honed efficiency. I tried to do it all and be it all for a while, but that was a recipe for disaster. (See previous paragraph referring to alcoholic family). But in the recesses of my personality I still needed to prove that staying home was the right decision. Of course, I knew in my heart it was the right decision for me, but still, I needed to manifest that sentiment to the world. In the absence of semi-annual performance reviews, my children’s report cards were my tangible affirmation.

No matter how you ended up playing this insane version of Monopoly, when you find yourself tsk-tsking the foibles of other children, most likely children of parents who are not as committed/dedicated/present as you are, just stop. No matter how well you follow the rules, all children stumble, they all fall, they all feel pain, and from time to time, they all lose their way. When mine (now young adults) eventually had their moments, large and small, I felt shame over the superior air I’d taken. I’d been an asshole, not just strutting out of year end assemblies, but at the bus stop. Daily.  (And yes, I promise that I’m working on an epic article about the Beacon Hill bus stop!)

Don’t become the mother I recently spoke to who hired a consultant to help her college junior get a better internship. Get it under control now or you’ll be competing over whose child makes more money, who marries better, who produces more grandchildren. JUST STOP.

Your child’s mental health and happiness is the most important thing. Turn your hovering energy inward, discover your own passion and invest time in whatever friendships you still have. If I could do it, so can you.

tender mother and daughter moment

Learning to Say Goodbye to your Children is an Overrated Skill

The following article was originally published on GrownandFlown.com.

I scoffed at the parents, briefcases in hand, dressed smartly, waving furiously and tearing up at the “Goodbye Window.” I donned an ensemble of sweats, maybe even the t-shirt I’d slept in, and a hat and down jacket long enough to cover the entire mess. My eldest son was three and a half and I’d drop him each morning in the ‘green room,’ his younger siblings in tow. Sometimes literally drop him.

I had no time for drawn out goodbyes, for melodrama, for prolonging this chore. My baby was fussing, and my milk was letting down and if I got out of there quickly, I might be able to nurse her, tuck her in her crib and cajole my toddler into a  morning nap or ‘quiet time’, or at least render him a zombie in front of a Thomas the Tank Engine video. I made a bee-line out of the nursery school’s front yard, dreaming of forty-five minutes more sleep before needing to return for pick-up.

Looking back, I see that I put an inordinately high value on my children’s independence. Like they were baby sea turtles and I was their biggest cheerleader, rooting them along from the hole in which they hatched, across a treacherous, sandy beach to breaking waves where they might swim off haphazardly, as if once their tiny bodies submerged, crossed some invisible goal line, I’d be relieved of all this mothering. I might be able to sleep again. I even believed, during those first foggy years, the goal line was as attainable as the nursery school’s threshold.

I learned to say goodbye to my children, time after time.

I would witness other prolonged goodbye rituals after the nursery school, at the bus stop when they went off to elementary school, for example. I snickered morning after morning as one particular father jumped up and down, trying to glimpse his daughter through the bus window, waving goodbye, blowing kisses. (BTW he turned out to be a serial killer, but I’ll save that for another article.)  Anyway, I had a dog that needed walking, and dirty dishes and a pile of laundry back at home waiting…

When my children became bar and bat mitzvah, I glowed with pride as the doctrine came down, “You are no longer children, you are responsible adults in the eyes of God.” Could I also operate under that assumption?  Probably not until they received their drivers licenses, but soon! Very soon!

I’d deliver them to boarding schools in the fall, and after every break, telling myself all these million goodbyes were character building, were necessary if they were ever to stand on their own, if they were ever to succeed, to compete.  Later, there’d be college dorms where I carried boxes up flights of stairs, but I’d stopped making their beds and putting their clothes away, thinking You are old enough to put your shirts on hangers. Besides, I was double-parked.

They now have jobs and apartments of their own. They come home for holidays, and after a few weeks of over-flowing joy and bustling activity, they are gone again. My house is way too large without them. My refrigerator is empty. And I wonder why exactly I tried so hard to master the art of goodbye. What exactly were the benefits of that skill?

I will say it now, scream it, even. Saying goodbye sucks. Maybe it’s deep-seeded in our species’ survival instinct – a mother’s instinct to make her wobbly-kneed youngsters sturdy, nudging them off into the forest to hunt and forage on their own. Survival of the fittest and all that. But it is a mother’s last pain to endure, watching her children leave.

However, I can be patient. Someday grandchildren will arrive. I will go visit them, and they will have to kick me out.

how instagram helps my writing

How Instagram Helps My Writing

I took a “Writing from Personal Experience” class in Cambridge taught by Mopsy Strange Kennedy. An exercise she often assigned us involved going on “writerly walks.”  She encouraged us to travel our usual paths but make the effort to really notice – maybe for the first time – the details along the route: the bicycle chained to a post, the balustrade in need of paint, the torn screen on a window.  After the walk, we were supposed to write about a particular object, the more mundane the better, but the purpose was to infuse that object with meaning.  It was a good way to develop writing muscle as well as the art of paying attention. I noticed quirks and color and inconsistencies. I noticed the way the sun reflects off a window or the way steam rises off hot pavement, windows that were open wide and music that traveled to the sidewalk, even the scent of hot pizza escaping a delivery bike’s insulated red container. I noticed trash and dog poop, as well as crocuses pushing up through the earth.

Aiming to post a daily photo on Instagram requires a similar practice. When taking photographs, I am not looking for smell or sound, but for an interesting tableau.  It’s easy to take our routines for granted, but when searching for beautiful patterns or color or amusements, we have our eyes wide open.  Social media can be blamed for a lot but, for me at least, when it comes to Insta, it adds an artistic distraction to my day.

Follow me on Instagram @jeanneblasbergauthor.

The Camino de Santiago- A Modern Pilgrimage

In theory, the medieval pilgrimage routes of Europe shouldn’t have held any special allure for me. “It’s such a Christian thing,” several people commented when I told them about our travel plans. I am a 53-year-old Jew, but I am also a lover of the outdoors, of physical challenge, and of meditation. John and I wanted a taste, so we chose a relatively short section, 210km, 10 days, on the Camino de Santiago, a thousand mile and thousand year old migratory path that culminates in Santiago de Compostela, Spain with an emotional mass held in its ornate cathedral.

After attending the high mass (yes, the mass…) with Catholic rites and flair galore, my husband and I found ourselves roaming city streets in search of Jerusalem street, the center of the Jewish quarter that existed before the Inquisition. Where did our people fit in? We were migratory, we were spiritual, where were the monuments to Jews along this meditative way? All we found on the crooked alleyway was a bookstore with Judaica in its window (closed for midafternoon siesta). Still it was something, albeit small, but in a prominent location only a stone’s throw from the Cathedral.

The next morning, we flew to Marrakech, arriving at our riad in the Medina as the call to prayer was sounding. Traveling from the height of Christendom to a Muslim land was jarring. Still yearning for something of the Jewish diaspora, we visited the Synagogue of Marrakech, dating from 1492 – a year ingrained in any American schoolgirl’s head as the year when Columbus sailed the ocean blue… but it was also fourteen years after Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand began extinguishing Jews during the Spanish Inquisition.

Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled to North Africa, the synagogue opening in Marrakech marked that Sephardic migration. I flashed back to my 7th grade French teacher, a Jew from Morocco – meeting her as a privileged, white, suburban kid in the 1970’s made an impact that has lasted to this day. Back then there was nothing more exotic to me than a French-speaking female Jew from Africa of all places. Who knew?

Over forty years later I was traveling to her homeland to hike into the High Atlas mountains. Our local guide pointed out the remains of various synagogues tucked away in small villages. Many of North Africa’s Jews were Berbers, living in these remote places. Morocco has always prided itself on being a pluralistic country, but when it achieved its independence from France in 1956, many of its Jews fled to Israel and elsewhere fearing inhospitable rule.

It wasn’t until I was sitting on the plane, writing down thoughts on the way back to North America, that I mused on our walk along the Camino followed by a journey to Morocco mirroring the migratory pattern of Jews over hundreds of years…. Walking, not toward a religious ceremony, but because they were chased out, first from Spain and Portugal and later from various North African countries.

Similar to Christianity, Islam places pilgrimage as one of its central pillars. Every year, 2-3 million Muslims make a Hajj (a word interestingly sharing the same root as the Hebrew word “chagag” meaning to make a pilgrimage) to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This happens during a five-day period, starting on 8 and ending on 12 Dhu al-Hijjah, the twelfth and last month of the Islamic calendar. It is required that Muslims make this journey once in a lifetime. Their pilgrimage is a demonstration of Muslim solidarity as well as an opportunity to shed material trappings, to focus on self over outward appearance. Shedding material trappings, and self-introspection was also what John and I had endeavored on the Camino.

While we walked, John and I wondered what the Jewish version of a pilgrimage would be. Before the destruction of the Temple, the Hebrew Bible commanded Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times per year: in the spring during Passover, in the summer during Shavuot, and in the fall during Sukkot. There is not a specific trail prescribed, just a returning. Next year in Jerusalem!

We googled and researched in the evening after walking. We discovered the ancient road of Abraham, called the Abraham Path, thinking it might represent the Jewish equivalent of the Camino – but such a journey seemed unrealistic in today’s political climate. It stretches from Urfa in Turkey to Hebron in the West Bank, spreading over thousands of kilometers through Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.

Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the Jews sanctifying time over place. We worship in our homes, not in ornate churches. Shabbat is our cathedral – it exists anywhere – and is marked by time and the lighting of candles, not architecture. It is the Jew’s responsibility to treat time as sacred as opposed to places. Maybe he would have told us that our most important pilgrimage isn’t through tangible geography with a large building our stadium as the end-point, but through time. Below I have copied one of my favorite poems from the Jewish liturgy which is of the same spirit:

Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps to wisdom;
From weakness to strength
Or strength to weakness –
And often back again;
From health to sickness
And back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding –
From fear to faith;
From defeat to defeat to defeat –
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey.
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination;
And life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage to life everlasting.

I found a poem called “Pilgrim’s Prayer” on a postcard in one of the churches along the Camino. It asks the question: what good is a pilgrimage if you don’t bring its teachings home? It reminded me of the Jewish text in Isaiah that we read each year during Yom Kippur, “Is this the fast I desire?” asking (and I paraphrase): What is the point of a fast if you are only going to take your discomfort out on other people? A proper fast should unlock the fetters of wickedness, untie the cords of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free. During a proper fast, one should share one’s bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into one’s home; upon seeing the naked, clothe them, and not ignore one’s own kin.

Pilgrim’s Prayer
By Fraydino
Although I may have travelled all the roads
Crossed mountains and valleys from East to West,
If I have not discovered the freedom to be myself,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have shared all my possessions
With people of other languages and cultures;
Made friends with pilgrims of a thousand paths,
Or shared albergue with saints and princes,
If I am not capable of forgiving my neighbor tomorrow,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have carried my pack from beginning to end
And waited for every Pilgrim in need of encouragement,
Or given my bed to one who arrived later than I,
Given my bottle of water in exchange for nothing;
If upon returning to my home and work,
I am not able to create brotherhood
Or to make happiness, peace and unity,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have had food and water each day,
And enjoyed a roof and shower every night;
Or may have had my injuries well attended,
If I have not discovered in all that, the love of God,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have seen all the monuments
And contemplated the best sunsets;
Although I may have learned a greeting in every language
Or tasted the clean water from every fountain;
If I have not discovered who is the author
Of so much free beauty and so much peace,
I have arrived nowhere.
If from today I do not continue walking on your path,
Searching and living according to what I have learned;
If from today I do not see in every person, friend or foe
A companion on the Camino;
If from today I cannot recognize God,
As the one God of my life,
I have arrived nowhere.

I have learned that whether through foreign lands or through my time on earth, I am always on a pilgrimage. I might not be lacing up the hiking boots every morning, but all I can do is put one foot in front of the other, be my strongest, and help fellow souls along the way.