pilgrims way

2pm, march 12, deep hampshire and nearing the end of 16 kilometres. i set out to walk a portion of the pilgrims way, something i’ve been slowly and in pieces trying to complete for a couple of years. something in me knew this would be the last walk for awhile, i’d been headachy for a couple of days and thought dusting off the cobwebs might sort the stress (NB: still headachy a week later).

it wasn’t a particularly scenic walk, this one. it had its moments, but while the path’s name might suggest hallowed churches and prayerful hilltops, many sections are not particularly sacred-feeling. i’d earlier spent many long minutes tramping between a chain-link fence blocking a railway line – busy every few minutes with brain-rattling trains passing at full speed – and a sand pit where big trucks were rumbling around picking deeply at a huge earthen scar.

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it rained on england for most of january and february, and rivers and valleys i passed earlier were still receding; pools of floodwater and vestiges of overflown banks everywhere. when i arrived at this final seemingly unending stretch of mud, i was exhausted. legs crying, feet hurting, head aching. simply not sure i could physically get through it.

i started to weep.

it’s strange looking back on this photo now. with a week’s hindsight, what a beautiful spot this was. lovely overgrown ivy inching along edges, proud trees teasing at spring buds, high sun and a cold breeze hastening low clouds.

so much of my life over the past three years has felt like this moment. so many times i have thought, “this is it. i definitely will not make it through this.”

test after test. loss after loss. grief upon grief. getting through one and feeling relief, like maybe now things will just be okay. then another test, another loss, another goodbye, another crumbling tower.

each time, i have laid down and wept. grabbed my knees to my chest and wondered why. i have lost perspective and found it again. the legs of my soul have been broken and i have dug deep and found the healing powers within myself to stand up again. walk on. smile. feel the sun on my face. push up the next hill.

but looking back, every mud patch led to an island in the sun. and it turns out that it’s not about just being okay again. it’s about living in each second, fully, even when you are weeping.

i cursed my way through this one, told the universe to go fuck itself, told myself i couldn’t do it and then reminded myself that i absolutely could in fact do it. reminded myself of much worse mud patches. reminded myself about the day i climbed all of the crags on hadrian’s wall in one go and then walked 15km afterwards and saw ghosts of roman soldiers. cheered myself on with shouts of encouragement from voices just then a little out of reach. keep on walking! the voice told me.

when i started into this mud patch, i couldn’t see how far it went. climbing through mud with my legs aching, my head hurting, having already walked through a dozen other mud patches and maybe with a case of coronavirus really seemed cruel right then. in actual fact, it was probably a funny sight. the tears streaming down my face were clearing a lot of emotion, but they also blurred my vision and i swayed around, slipped and nearly fell several times. man alive, would i have been pissed-off then, and the birds would have had to listen to all sorts of obscene language.

some distance later, i emerged – my boots heavy with wet soil – and shout-sigh-growled out into the silent ether at the (mercifully dry) field in front of me. this release felt tremendously good in my body. we really don’t give enough credence to the healing powers of screaming.

the path led forward along a straight and long roman footpath, eventually past a roman settlement, marked on the map but of which there was not a visible trace.

there were no ghosts today. only my own higher soul whispering,

pilgrim, look what you are capable of now.

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