31 Oct 2017.
When I visited St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, in July 2016, I didn’t know that I was visiting as a pilgrim-to-be. My tall, wild French boyfriend drove me there in his vintage Citroën Mehari. Holding hands (not able not to hold hands), we walked through the hilly, winding, cobbled streets, and he explained to me that St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, this small town in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, is the famous starting place for spiritual pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail, which ends in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
We saw many people in serious hiking clothes carrying rucksacks. They were in small groups and pairs, mostly, and there was the occasional lone pilgrim. We walked past the open door of the pilgrimage registration office, where pilgrims clustered, speaking to the administrators inside who would record the beginning of each pilgrim’s journey and give them the information they needed. On the wall of the office was a giant map showing the trail, curving from this little French village down through the mountains of northern Spain, and ending at the sea on Spain’s northwest coast. I stepped inside to take a picture of the map.
Everywhere we looked in the town we saw seashells: scallop shells, to be more precise. There were paving stones under our feet carved in the shape of scallop shells, scallop shells on restaurant awnings stretching out over the sidewalks, and scallop shells in every shop window. My Frenchman explained that this was the symbol of the pilgrimage trail. Then I noticed that the pilgrims all wore the scallop shell symbol somewhere on their person: as a patch sewn onto their rucksacks or coats, or hanging around their necks on a lanyard. I was laughing and laughing about seeing all of these shells, because later that night we were going to a costume party in our campsite, and I was dressing up as a mermaid and had a scallop-shell bra to wear.
My mermaid bra was made out of real scallop shells. When I assembled my mermaid costume in preparation for my upcoming camping trip in France with the Frenchman, I was living in Cambridge and having a long-distance relationship with him. I worked at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is across the street from the Loch Fyne seafood restaurant. I stepped across the street one day during my lunch break to ask the restaurant if they had any scallop shells I could use for a mermaid bra. The young man I spoke to said they no longer had a dish with scallop shells on the menu. He was standing behind a brightly-lit, refrigerated display case holding fresh seafood on ice. Both our eyes travelled down to the selection of oysters there, whose shells were the right shape. He said I could give you some oyster shells, and then he paused, genuinely intent on helping me with my quest, then said, but they’re [looking at my chest analytically] not big enough. Then he realised what he had said, and we both burst out laughing. Then he went to the kitchen to ask the chefs, and he came back with two scallop shells which they had kept for display.
At the Fitzwilliam I worked with the conservators and technicians who handle and display the precious objects in the museum, so I knew girls with drills and delicate skills. My friend Charis kindly drilled three small holes in each shell, so I could lace some string through them, and voilà, I had my mermaid bra.
I didn’t plan my pilgrimage ahead of time, like the well-equipped pilgrims I had seen in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The Frenchman had said, I love you. Come live with me. I will build a room for you to write in. Something has happened in my heart that has never happened before. Something had happened in my heart that had never happened before, too. Being with the Frenchman was like having magic injected into my blood. It was like being gently on fire at all times.
The cross-Channel ferry was booked for 5 August 2016, one month after our camping trip in the Pyrenees. The Frenchman arrived in Cambridge a few days before this to help me pack up my things, this time driving a vintage Citroën CX station wagon hauling a trailer. I had trained my replacement at the museum and said goodbye to my colleagues there. I had a big party to say goodbye to all my friends, and everybody came to hug me, wish me luck in my new life in France and have one final disco in my kitchen. I remember that the Frenchman and I both wore red to the party – I wore a red dress, and he wore a red shirt.
The plan was to hand over the keys of the rented shared house I had lived in for 11 years on the morning on 5 August, and then we would drive to Newhaven and take the evening ferry to Dieppe.
But [dear Reader…you have been able to sense where this story is going, haven’t you?] we had a catastrophic argument on the evening of 4 August, and broke up. The next morning, instead of driving to Newhaven to catch the ferry to France, we drove his car and trailer, loaded with all my possessions, to a storage box unit in an industrial estate around the corner from my former home in Cambridge.
I kept one big, red suitcase and a small backpack with me, and there I was, no home, no job, no relationship – all gone in one night.
This first part felt fiery, like a violent blood-letting, like falling and crashing. But… But… How can I describe to you how deeply I felt the hand of God on my life at this time? And how this felt beautiful? The falling and then the crashing, with my losses scattered and burning on the ground around me, showed me more deeply than anything before ever had, that all those burning things are not ME, and then I felt ME in a new way, as an intangible something that was indestructible and deeply connected to God. I knew right away that I was being ushered into a radical spiritual transformation. I saw how deeply I had nestled into my little burrow-life in Cambridge in a way that had changed from safe and stable to stagnant. I had been like a seed, still alive, but so…still. And so afraid…so unconsciously afraid of life.
All of my friends know that I have been on a deep and conscious spiritual path for years. For fifteen years, as this little seed, I soaked in theory and drank words, concepts, and ideas from spiritual writers from many different mystical traditions: Christian, Native American, Buddhist, Hindu, Yogic, New Age. And then on 5 August 2016, the great clock of the universe rang its bell, and suddenly it was time for pilgrimage, experience, practice, doing, transformation. It was time for me to be tossed out into the rich soil, water and sunlight of the outside world.
One of the most beautiful things that happened was discovering how many loving hands reached out to cushion my fall, to hold me afterwards when I cried, to offer me beds and sofas, to feed me, and just be near me, in quiet support. I hadn’t realised how loved I was. I hadn’t been particularly good at asking for help before.
From that moment, I started the deep learning of my pilgrim lessons. The first lesson was ‘Trust’. Trust God. Trust intuition. Trust friends. Trust that the path will appear, and you will be guided by what your heart tells you. Trust your own path, and don’t look over at anyone else’s. I knew that the right thing for me to do was to start traveling.
It is over a year later now, and I have had many beautiful spiritual experiences, and my faith and trust in this loving universe have been rewarded again and again, so that now I trust trust.
I know that discovering and deepening my connection to God was worth every single painful, burning moment of loss, fear and loneliness that I went through. I learned by going through this fire that those things are not really true things, and that when you realise God is inside you as you, and also everywhere around us, then we learn that we are never alone, and everything is okay, and we are all simply on a path of discovery each day, towards a deeper understanding of love, the nature of reality and God.
As I drop more and more deeply into my own understanding, I sense that the universe is conscious, attentive, loving and quietly waiting for us to wake up and notice this. It is sending us love notes in the form of little daily magics: serendipities, things that look like coincidences, or a mermaid bra made of scallop shells, but which are really a wink, hug, guide, a blessing from divine love, which say, ‘I’m here. I’m watching. I’m listening. I love you, Pilgrim. Everything is okay, no matter what your path looks like today.’
Serendipity Story #2 Coming Soon…
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