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  • Writer's picturecherylmurfin

Day 8/9: Over and into the sea

"If I could live in a tiny dwelling on a rock in the ocean, surrounded by the waves of the sea and cut off from the sight and sound of everything else, I would still not be free of the cares of this passing world, or from the fear that somehow the love of money might still come and snatch me away." — Cuthbert


We scrambled to breakfast relatively early this morning, excited and a little nervous to make it to the Northumbrian coast and across the sandy tide flats onto Holy Island before 11:50 a.m. After that point, the sea would close up over the causeway, and we'd be stranded on the mainland for four more hours, waiting for the next safe crossing window.

I think we were all eager to complete the walk, spend more than a few hours exploring the island, and settle into two days in our private rooms. When you've been bunking up with a relative stranger for a week, a single room is like a long hot bath after a freezing day outside. You can stop worrying about what sounds you're making in the bathroom, whether your backside is covered when you hop out of bed, or whether your snoring (or theirs) is a justification for hate.

Of course, it was more than that. Over the past eight days, we'd moved through all the phases of pilgrimage: preparing, beginning, journeying, exploring, letting go, and, as I mentioned in my last post, staying — staying the course, staying with the emotions, staying on the page. And now, seven miles ahead, not the end — pilgrimages never really end — but arrival.

We stepped on the path at Fenwick, and soon we found ourselves eye-to-eye with "The Great North Road," known to most UK drivers as the A1. One by one we played chicken with fast-moving cars and trucks. We won, making it safely across the asphalt and eventually landing back on the footpath that carried us across several wide-open fields where farmers waved down from tractors and birds called out from hedgerows. The smell of kale and broccoli filled the air, and then, as we moved downhill, the sea began to rise in the distance, as did the strong smell of fertilizer in our nostrils. The gentle downhill made the walking breezy.

Eventually, we found ourselves lined up on the East Coast Railway Line, a central railroad between Scotland and England. Near the crossing gate, there's a phone in a yellow box. As instructed by the nearby notice, we called the signalman and let them know we had six to cross the tracks. We hung on until he told us it was safe to cross. On the other side, we rang him back to let him know our crew was safe. And on we went.

And then, almost a surprise, we were there, standing on the causeway, the road that runs from the mainland onto the island. And there, alongside the roadway, veering to the right across the sands, were the poles that jetted out of flats, high markers for those walking the "pilgrims way" onto the island. Traditionally, pilgrims remove their shoes and walk across the flats barefoot.

Unfortunately, we'd cut it too close, and the timetable shouted, "NOT SAFE TO CROSS." Despite the warning, one in our group was agitated by the delay and considered making a run for the island. We talked them off the ledge of their eagerness.

Instead, we made our way to a cafe up the road where we engaged in our last prompt of the walk: "Yes and . . ."

Steven, our leader for this prompt, explained how taking improv classes had opened up his thinking and challenged him to listen, respond, and collaborate with others. So there in the parking lot, surrounded by campers, we six writing walkers played improv games, throwing any embarrassment about the strange sounds Steven encouraged us to make to the wind. The writing prompt fell from that. "Yes and . . ." Write.

"Yes, and "

I could have pulled all sorts of lessons from the day and the prompt. But the one reminder that stayed with me as we eventually made our way across the water to the island came from the writer who had wanted to test the crossing warning and get to the island four hours earlier than we did.

As we started our walk, she took me aside and reminded me that there are consequences to every decision. She might have made it if she'd decided to go across when we got to the coast rather than heed the warning. She's got a fast pace.

It turned out that the laughter, collaboration, and encouragement to look at life through a "Yes, and . . ." lens was a trip highlight for her.

"I might have had a little more time on the island, but then I would have missed this wonderful experience," she said of Steven's exercises and the gift of writing that flowed from them.

Note to self: How often do I get fixated on one idea, one direction, to the exclusion of any other possibility? How often do I turn and go in my own direction when invited to be part of a group? How often do I say no?

The answer for me is simple: Too often. Which was the best new awareness to find at the end of this walk as we arrived at Holy. I find myself hoping that I left some part of that lonely 'no' on this path and that I move forward with the wide-open adventurousness, connection, and thrill of "Yes, and . . ."

Holy Island, it turns out, is just that: a place that exudes a sense of the sacred, the holy. It's not just the history of the monks who found their way here. Or the monks among them — Aidan, Cuthbert — who became saints after living here. It's not the tiny island just off the shore of Holy Island where Cuthbert lived his hermit's end. Or the beautiful castle on the hill overlooking the North Sea or solitary fishing boats rising and falling with the bay.

It's simply the place. Holy Island is a place of distinct beauty with its tall grasses, colorful rocks, sandy beaches, and ocean-side cairns. It's a circle of quiet and solitude. You can walk from one side of this island to the other in less than an hour. It is less than two miles long and just over half a mile wide.

And yet, it seemed to me as I walked, there was a whole world in that span. And that makes it the perfect place to end a pilgrimage.

In the first entry of this walk, I shared the definition of that word that makes the most sense to me: "A pilgrimage is a journey, often into an unknown or foreign place, where a person goes in search of new or expanded meaning about their self."

I can't speak for the others who wandered this path with me. But, I started this walk carrying a load that made my world feel tight and constrained: fear, a need to control, worry that I am not skilled enough to help others connect their bodies to their writing, to get in touch with a childlike sense of creativity.

Standing on a sandy beach beside a singing ocean, under a painting of clouds, touched by a spitting mist at the far end of Holy Island, I realized how fearless I can be. How vital this small dream of mine to lead writers deeper into themselves is. How vast the world is. How, as wars, rage, and pain continue in and across our planet, we must claim our creativity and ask it to lead us back to ourselves and toward a more humane world. How each step toward that end matters.

I took off my clothes and ran naked into the North Sea. On the wind, I heard "Yes, and . . ." chasing me like a gleeful child.



Thank you for walking with us through this blog. I want to personally invite you to join us o our net walk along St. Cuthbert's Way in April 2024. I am excited to see this beautiful route in spring — a very different nature sure to inspire a whole new world of writing. To learn more or register for the walk go to Compass Writers.



We have arrived at the end of our pilgrimage. What have you or your character arrived at? Where have you/they arrived? What did it take to get here/there? How will arriving change you/them?



Agreeing to Disagree: A dialogue

By Cheryl Murfn

Day one:

“That’s it, I’m done.”

“What do you mean you’re done?”

“I mean exactly that. I can’t do this anymore. You are driving me crazy, and I’ve hit my line. Done. I am out of here.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re not going anywhere.”

“You can bet I am. I’m finished with this. I didn’t see it before. I love you, but I don’t like who you are. And I don’t have to live with who you are.”

“But you do.”

“What do you mean I do?”

“I mean, there is nowhere for you to go, Margot. This is an island. Do you have a secret boat stashed away that you plan to take somewhere where you don’t have to take it anymore?

. . . and where are you going to go outside this house? It’s a stone island; it’s below freezing out there, and you wouldn’t know how to hunt even if a cow walked up and presented its head to you. Which it won’t. . . . so you aren’t going anywhere.”

“I am. I am going upstairs. And you are not to go past these steps to that part of the house. I have a gun upstairs, and I swear I will shoot you if I see as much as a nose pass that first step.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I am deadly serious.”

"OK, do as you like. I am perfectly comfortable on this floor. But how, exactly, do you plan to cook?”

“You can take the regular meal hours at 7 AM, noon and 6 PM. And I will eat one hour before, so at 6 AM, 11 AM and 5 PM. We split the rations. If you see me, do not talk to me, and I will do you the same courtesy.”

"This is ridiculous. You know you’re being ridiculous, don’t you?”

“Even half a nose, and I will shoot.”

“Pipe down. I got it. Whatever you want.”

Day 2:

Margo sits at breakfast at 6 AM in a swirl of solitude and quiet. As she sips her coffee, she hears nothing. Not his slurping of liquid, not his over-loud chewing, his banging of utensils. Perfect quiet.

And yet, as she glances at the stack of crossword puzzles, a slight, what, sadness? Whispers through her. For 20 years, they have done the puzzle together, the perfect balance of information between them. He’s got sports, mechanics, technology, and geography. She has health, art, music, science, and miscellaneous. Together, they work through options to land on the right one every time. They’ve never not completed a puzzle. She picks one up, starts, and puts it down. Her coffee suddenly feels lukewarm and lackadaisical.

At 7 AM, James glimpses her back as she trots up the steps. She’s wearing a red dress, always his favorite. Has he ever told her that? He sits at his breakfast, glugs his coffee as loudly as he likes, and clanks his fork forcefully, in effect hoisting his middle finger at Margo. As he pulls a puzzle across the table, a faint grief passes through him. Harrumphing he starts to work through the clues.

Four questions in, his forward motion comes to a halt: “Disease that starts with color and ends in death.”

They pass each other as they go about their business, each feigning blindness but feeling a certain ache. She spends hours flitting from one task to another, unexpectedly missing his admonition to “sit the bloody hell down. You’re not a young woman anymore.”

He stomps through the soggy mud in the now-dead garden on his way to the wood pile, relishing the squish. Back and forth, he luggs the logs and tender, missing her not-quite hysterical “Take off yer muddy boots, you old coot! Do I look like the maid?”

As they pass each other at the lunch switch, she lingers on the steps up to her bedroom a moment longer than she wanted to. He has hung his wet and soiled coat on the back of the kitchen chair, where it is making a puddle on the floor. Snot hung from his nose, and he cleared his throat incessantly. She longs, with a flutter of the heart, to tell him, “Clear your nose, you old fool. You will make me grab a cleaver!”

When he goes to wash his dishes, he sees the over-wet washcloth dangling from the faucet and longs to tell her about the smell and bacteria and “washcloths are for the body – didn’t yer mother teach you that?”

When she makes her dinner, she makes twice as much as she needs. Accidentally. She reads a book, but finds it hard to concentrate – despite his not going on and on and on about corporations and how they would be “the ruination of the world” and how “it will not end well – mark my words.” She forgets to snuff out the candle she had planned to snuff out to keep him in the dark.

As he warms the plate she laid for him, he relishes that she wasn’t sitting expectantly, resentfully across the table waiting for him to regale her with compliments, which he could never get quite right enough to please her. And yet, he longs to tell her the turnips were perfectly buttered and spiced, and the pudding perfectly toasted with gravy divine.

When they climb into their separate beds, while he doesn’t miss her long and complicated ablutions and her stockings hanging in the bathroom and her review of the struggles of the day, he does miss their shared prayer of thanks for all they have and the sound of her breathing on her side of the bed. At first, she savored having the covers all to herself with no smell of sweat and farting. But in the middle of the night, still not asleep, she realizes she misses the whole and present smell of him.

Day 3

The next morning, they both awake not quite right, not quite settled. They look at themselves in their separate mirrors. Each comes to the same decision.

At 6 AM, he slips into his seat at the breakfast table and lifts his cup. Blowing softly on the hot liquid, he drinks it down silently. He takes the puzzle and does the first clue: a 1950s car with silver wings. He places his utensils quietly on his plate. Margo pours him his second cup, not commenting on his uncombed hair or the shirt he’s been wearing for four days. She lifts the puzzle he’s slid toward her and answers the clue, a womb with two chambers: “bifurcated uterus.”

And so it is at lunch and dinner, each deciding what not to do and what not to say to the other. Each deciding that the weight of loss far outweighs the discomforts of the other’s habits and quirks and ideopsynchracies

That night, they find their way to their shared bed. She cuts her ablutions in half. He gets himself a blanket and passes her all the covers. The sweating and farting can’t be helped. But strangely, she’s comforted by his smells — the smells of home, it turns out.

“You know,” she says as the dark settles in. “There’s no way off this island until spring. So you couldn’t go even if you wanted to.”

“You know,” he tells her. “I never wanted to.”

“Well, then,” she says. “It’s settled.”

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