If you’ve heard all the stories about academia that you care to hear in a lifetime and they strike you as highfalutin, injected with too much self-aggrandizement, then maybe this isn’t the story for you. And if your feet are so firmly planted on the ground that any hint of the spiritual or, heaven forbid, the prophetic, makes you uncomfortable, again, maybe this story isn’t for you. (But then, if either of those things are true, you probably abandoned this blog very early on.)
As for me, I love this tale, and I swear, every single word of it is Gospel truth! Trust me on this one.
THE STAGE and ACT ONE
To set the stage, we have to go back in time. Way back. The year is 1975. Let’s picture February. Could have been March. Same difference, really. It’s winter in Indiana. If you’ve lived here, you know what I mean. If not, picture a near-endless succession of dull, gray-skied, moisture-filled days. Dreariness personified. Add to the scene a beyond-terrified graduate student preparing to “sit” for her doctoral exams. Three of them, scheduled three or four weeks apart. You would think that by one’s fifth year in grad school–and, what? one’s 20th year of absorbing, analyzing, interpreting, comparing, contrasting, and otherwise showing understanding of any number of subject matters and disciplines–that one would have grown accustomed to the rigors of exercising the brain. Taking an exam, even a 6-hour written exam–or, in this case, three such exams, would just give one a chance to show one’s highly-honed intellectual muscles. Just another trip to an oft-visited gym, but staying to exercise a bit longer than usual.
You might think that, but you would be wrong. At least in the case of this particular grad student who, as I already mentioned, was terrified. C’est moi, of course. But you already knew that.
So, are you picturing me cowering? Deep circles under my eyes? Nervous ticks? Barricaded in my room and hemmed in by irregular piles of opened books, ragged, dog-eared notebooks, half-consumed cups of coffee? Enough. Let’s not dwell on the pathetic sight I’m making my way through the genres of Spanish Golden Age literature; think: 16th and 17th centuries. Prose, drama, poetry. Cervantes, naturally. Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca, of course. And the poets, foremost among them Quevedo and Góngora. The poets. The sonnets. All those rhyming patterns. Those lines with the right number of syllables. The ABBAs and ABCs and so forth. (You had to learn that, too, like with Shakespeare, no? Or Milton? Do you remember the patterns and rules better than I do? That was a long time ago!)
And all of a sudden, there I was, writing one. Me! A sonnet! Oh, yeah: in Spanish! The one and only poem I’ve ever written in Spanish. Not one of those sing-songy ones like I write for people’s birthdays, but a real, honest-to-goodness poem. With vocabulary that, if I may say so, sounded like the Golden Age era. No surprise there as I’d been steeped in it, day and night, for years and with great intensity in recent months as I prepared for the exams. The poem reflected my near-despair as I readied myself to face the “written exam gauntlet,” and yet, it was, at the same time, a release of tension. I remember being excited to get the thoughts out in the open and to do so in the requisite sonnet form. At least something was working for me! Proof to self that I was retaining bits and pieces, that I hadn’t entirely gone out of my mind due to the process of trying to fill it to overflowing.
Yes, I was actually kind of proud of it. And so I stuck a copy of it in the mail slot of Professor G., one of the five profs on my exam committee and the one whose class on Golden Age poetry I had taken. There! Got that off my chest!
What I didn’t expect was within 24 hours–perhaps in as few as 5 or 6? I can’t swear to the time here, but it was a speedy turnaround, no question about it–I found in my mail cubby a sonnet of rebuttal, written specifically for me by Professor G! Rhyme scheme, check. Correct number of syllables per line, check. Archaic vocabulary, double check. The gist of it? “You idiot. Enough with the pessimism already. You’ve got a solid brain and we know you’re going to do well. Go get some sleep!” All said very, very poetically and, besides, with great humor.
Follow-up: I did somehow manage to pass those three exams back in ’75, though I never wrote the dissertation that would have promoted me to “doctor.” But that’s another story. In ’76 Professor G. moved on to greener pastures. I thought of him from time to time, just as I would sometimes recall other professors from those years, but I had no further contact with him.
Ok. I’ve set the stage. You’ve got the background.
ACT TWO (or REPRISE)
Now, fast forward to mid-January, 2019. Forty-four years have passed. I am having lunch with Celia, a gal who did complete her doctorate at IU a bit more than a decade after I gave up the pursuit of same. She has driven in from Columbus, Indiana, and she very generously has agreed to meet with me to talk about her experiences walking the Camino in 2011 and 2013. In the course of our conversation, Professor G.’s name comes up. Turns out he has written a book about the Camino and, even more amazing, he is one of the key people responsible for “finding” many portions of the forgotten and abandoned Camino route back in the late 70s; he clearly deserves considerable credit for its “rebirth”!
Another wow in my books! (And his book? Believe me, I’ve ordered it!)
Celia herself, it turns out, has done a lot of research on the Camino, starting back in 2000. She has published articles and given many talks about it. Who knew when we set up our lunch date? Not I. Upon hearing that she had delved into Camino history, I asked if she might be able to give me Professor G.’s contact information. Said and done. It just seemed appropriate to send him a line, thank him for his work on and dedication to the Camino, and let him know that I would be traveling there in a few months. I formed in my mind what I might say in an email.
And then it occurred to me. Those poems from back in 1975. I was pretty sure I could put my hands on them. Rather easily. Hmmm. That would be kind of fun. Scanning them. Attaching them to an email. He’d be surprised. He might get a kick out of that. Yes, I’ll do it.
I head down the basement, open a file drawer, cross my fingers (full disclosure, as I promised that every word of this is true: it might have been a “mental” crossing of fingers…), and–I swear!–there they were, the two typed poems, in the front of the first file I opened! Barely giving them a cursory reading, I rush upstairs, scan them, write the email, attach the scanned poems and also a photo of myself from 1971 to further prod Professor G.’s memory as to who I was, and hit “send.” If this message ever gets opened, it is likely to be done in Mexico where Professor G. now lives. Wonder if I’ll hear back.
Indeed I did! And in under 4 hours! My email, he said, had made his day. His response, with a bit about his life between 1976 and the present, made mine!
End of story? Oh, no! We haven’t even touched on the prophetic yet!
ACT THREE. WHAT ARE THE CHANCES?…
In my excitement to send off the poems, I had barely read them. A quick skim, nada más. But shortly afterwards I went back to them, with a particular focus on mine, to get a better view of my 25-year-old self caught between the proverbial rock and hard place.
Wait a minute! What is this I see? The first word of my sonnet!?!? “Peregrina”! Peregrina? Pilgrim! I am calling myself a “pilgrim”? Uncanny. Here I am, about to embark on a peregrinaje [pilgrimage] for the first time in my life and what’s this? I come to find that forty-four years ago I was thinking of myself in figurative terms as a “pilgrim”? What are the chances?
And I read on. “Peregrina por senda interminable“. Pilgrim on a path with no end. Oh, like a 500-mile one? How often when I’m on the Meseta in north central Spain is “the path/the way/the camino” going to seem endless?
The second line (“sujeta a los caprichos voy del viento“) talks about me being tossed around by the whims of the wind. I think about pilgrim Bonnie’s description of the 40 mph gales that assaulted her on the first day of her Camino as she crossed the Pyrenees….
That wind, I say in the poem, is so fierce that it even robs me of all ability to think and it tosses me into “negrura inpenetrable” [endless or impenetrable darkness]. And I remember pilgrim Virginia telling me about her first day on the Camino when she and her walking partner for the day didn’t arrive in their overnight town of Roncevalles until 10:30 pm….
My second stanza summons “la fatiga inagotable” [the inexhaustible fatigue] and I recall any number of people who have described their Camino experience as “the hardest–as in ‘most physically challenging’–thing I’ve ever done.”
And then, get this question asked in the third stanza: “Pues, ¿dónde está la venta que al viajero / aguarda con vela encendida y puerta / franqueada?” Where is the inn that awaits the traveler, [said inn having left] a candle burning and the door ajar? Holy Schmoly! I think about the hostels, how people scramble to get there before they fill up, how the refugios close their doors by 10:00 pm and woe to you if you’re not settled in by then. The Spanish albergues don’t boast, like Motel 6, that they’ll “leave the light on for you.”
I won’t insist that every line of my sonnet coincides with a possible Camino experience. The pilgrim in the poem–me!–refers to herself as being without friends and especially without a close friend who really understands what she is going through; she talks about being disillusioned, confused, and full of questions that have no answers, in need of some gatherings to cheer her up, distract her. She is distraught and lonely. The tone is, indeed, pessimistic. It is not at all what I expect of my upcoming pilgrimage experience. Even while admitting to being a bit nervous and apprehensive about my trip, I am also very excited and not in the least terrified! (By late March, it’s anybody’s guess….)
Still, what are the chances? Really, what are the chances that a good twenty years before I ever had heard of the Camino and forty-three years before I seriously pictured myself walking it, just what are the chances of my coming up with the pilgrim imagery and references that appear in the poem? What is at play here? Call it “coincidence” if you must. Call it “prophetic” if you are willing. Or how about this: yet another example of “synchronicity”?
I call it “delightful” and “fun” and proof that not all adventures have to be physical ones, nor all “plays” the kind that are performed on stage. After all, as the Bard said, “all the world’s a stage.” And so this humble “player” will now take a little bow and call out, for now:
The pilgrims speak in fits and starts
of what throbs in their heads and hearts;
the seer, for all his delving arts,
is left outside.
Some crave the crowd, some march alone,
some walk to seek the self unknown;
some to attune, some to atone,
and some to hide.
Some probe the deserts for a cure,
some scale high mountains to ensure
their souls a sacred sinecure;
some walk to rest.
Pilgrim, divinity’s design
is masked. Take up your staff. Define
your road as church, your love as shrine,
your life as quest.
I’m opting for “synchronicity.” The events your wrote about cannot have been mere coincidence.
I very much enjoyed this entry: besides answering some questions I’ve always had about this period of your life, it also was wonderful to read.
That 4-hour response from Professor Gitlitz was beautiful. I can only imagine how pleased you are to have received it. By the way, I’ve ordered his (and Kay Davidson’s),The Pilgrim Road to Santiago. I will write more by email.
I woke up today having just experienced what I think is an authentic synchronicity. I’m making a comment here & now simply to make a record in writing. Later I’ll tell the story and you can decide. It has to do with my mother’s story about my father’s “misunderstanding” that saved the family from a crisis.