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  • Writer's picturecherylmurfin

Looking deeply

Updated: May 23

How can a road already traveled look so different a second time? 

Part of it for me was the season. I last walked St. Cuthbert's Way in the fall. This time, as the song in the old musical Carousel goes, spring was "busting out all over," although sadly, it was too early to catch the fields of blooming heather Scotland is known for. (Thanks to Kate Rusby for this beautiful version of that classic song).

The bigger part is that I'm not the same person I was six months ago or even one month ago. 

With my mother no longer scootering the planet (warning, you'll be hearing a lot about her in these 10 posts), I was feeling quite untethered as we walked between the walls of Melrose Abbey and then headed up into the hills. I've read that this is normal; this is grief trying not to grieve by holding its breath. But boy, is it unnerving to feel one self floating above oneself, seeing the world from strange and beautiful new angles. 

On the other hand, from this vantage point, everything looked and felt connected, like a perfectly woven tapestry: The mossy boards of the waymarkers and aging wooden staircases, the trees in their ivy dresses, the abundant and sweet-smelling wild garlic that made me think of bread and oil and wine and that time my mom stayed with me in my tiny studio apartment. We enjoyed garlic bread and wine sitting at my tiny table in my tiny kitchen. My mother told me that year that she was determined to go on a pilgrimage with me. With the vial of her ashes thumping against my heart and every leaf, log, and rock casting a surreal shimmer, I realized her hope was coming to fruition.

On this first day of walking, I learned two things. First, a single path becomes new in as many ways as the times you walk it. This St. Cuthbert's Way was as new to me as it was to each of the writers walking with me.

The second is that there should be a bench at the top of every challenging experience, a place to rest after every level of grief, hard effort, or internal summit. My fellow walkers and I think perhaps the Scots understand this because we found a welcoming bench nearly every time we reached the top of a particularly tough hill. And if not a bench, bucolic rock that was just the right size for sitting and resting. 

By the time we reached the end of the seven miles (which registered at 10 for me), I had made a decision. I decided to follow in the tradition of my Irish ancestors and give myself and my mother a year of mourning. I'll welcome it however it comes. I hope there will be benches.

This walk is a feast for the senses. Not that walking in your own neighborhood isn't a feast, but somehow, when we are away from what is normal to us, colors, sounds, and shapes surprise us. They take on new meaning, seem more vivid, feel louder, quieter, deeper. Or, at least, they do for me. Especially the garlic.

That's why, on the first day of a walking retreat, I invite writers to see. I mean really see.

As you walk today, pause often and LOOK closely at what's in front of you, behind you, beside you on the path. Take your time and see deeply. Write what you see down, or speak it into your Notes app. Look at the tree, around the tree, beneath the tree. Pick up the rock and turn it over. What words are needed to describe perfectly that golden field on your left? The working farm on your right? Consider the item of trash you collect (because you are a good steward) — what was it used for, why is it where you found it, who left it, what does it bring up in you?  

Such details are the bones of our writing. They carry our thoughts, meanings, and metaphors, whether we're writing a letter to a friend, working on The Great Novel, or trying to untangle the complicated threads of our relationship with our mother.

At the end of the first day, we used the words, thoughts, ideas, and items we collected during the walk to create a simple, small collage. Our unique colleges were the writing prompt. 

The group was tired by evening, although we enjoyed a delicious dinner and a lot of laughter. Those first steps on St. Cuthbert's Way lead straight up into the Eildons. Couple that with the energy-sapping anxiety of the unknown that is always present on the first day and the five and nine hours ahead of our regular time zones, and it catches up to you. 

Still, despite the call of their beds, beautiful writing came from their seeing. 





i see myself in you

you tree

you cone

you lamb

you not-quite-stranger walking just ahead of me

yours is a gaze reflected that I recognized as mine

a branch extended is also my arm when I hold it out

and the way the you dance and bleat when you think no one's watching also me

as is the sly wink of exhaustion or wariness or sadness you hope no one sees

in this way, reflecting,

you need not speak or direct or tell or reveal

who you are

instead allow me to simply witness

the me I see in you

and the you I see in me

let me say with surprise

"oh," say. "there I am."

and let me here you when you say

"here we are"

—Cheryl Murfin

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