The Adventures of Oolibee

Literacy was another feature of this complex animal we called Odyssey II. That passion, my sister Janie brought to the Odyssey, of course. But she kept saying to me, “You’re essential part of this! You’re the bridge between the languages! Especially if you learn to read Amharic like you say you’re going to!”

The plan was, when we returned to Addis Ababa, the artists and writers would collaborate in a workshop to create the raw materials (texts and art) for some early readers in languages of Ethiopia. It was an ambitious goal, but Janie soothed her anxieties by repeating her mantra: Process, not Perfection. Production was even further down the road, and we refused to let our spirits be dampened by worries about production costs.

Ethiopia has 88 separate languages, in four language families (For those who like to know these kinds of details: Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic, and Nilo-Saharan.)

Once the main language groups are accounted for, almost 12% of Ethiopians speak “other”. The Dizi (dee-zee) people of Maji area are one of the small tribes, about 40,000, with their own distinct Omotic language. Some years ago, Bible translators, under the Wycliff spin-off SIL, developed an alphabet for writing the Dizi language. At first, the three translators were the only people who could read and write Dizi.

The Dizi alphabet--there are sounds we don't have, of course, but the Latin alphabet has enough duplication (c and k, x, q, g and j) that translators can make it work.

The Dizi alphabet–there are sounds we don’t have, of course, but the Latin alphabet has enough duplication (c and k, x, q, g and j) that translators can make it work.


When I visited the county government headquarters in Maji this trip, I was pleased to see a Dizi alphabet poster on the lobby wall—the equivalent of A is for Apple, B is for Baby. Because it uses the Latin alphabet, I read some of the words. People burst out laughing to hear Dizi coming from a white woman, even though I only knew what the words meant by “reading” the pictures. I was delighted to see that the local government in Maji has embraced the SIL work on Dizi literacy. Ethiopia has taken seriously the research showing that if children learn to read first in their heart-language, they are more successful for rest of their school careers.

And since I was last in Maji, some boys have taken Dizi literacy classes. Passages from the book of Mark, which was written in simple Greek and is full of stories, are being printed and used for these literacy lessons: the Bible is the only written material that exists in Dizi.

Daphne Nelson of Monmouth College created an easy-reader book for children in Ethiopia.

Daphne Nelson of Monmouth College created an easy-reader book for children in Ethiopia. Henrietta the bird (bottom right) visits Ethiopia and searches for a nesting place.

Here’s another piece of the literacy stream that flowed together in Odyssey II: back in Illinois, at team member Jeri’s college and Janie’s and my alma mater, an art student was floundering for inspiration as she faced her senior project. When she heard that the Dizi language has no easy readers, she created one. It’s a simple story: a bird visits Ethiopia and searches for a nest. So one of our mini-projects in Maji was to get that simple book translated.

Mehakle, at the table with me, and friends, worked together in three languages to  translate the Henrietta-the-bird story.

Mehakle, at the table with me, and friends, worked together in three languages to translate the Henrietta-the-bird story.

Jeri and I sat down with Mehakl, a boy who graduated from Maji high school’s tenth grade and now teaches in a remote elementary school. As happens everywhere in Ethiopia, it didn’t take five minutes for eight more boys to gather around the foreigners to see what we were up to now. I orally translated the English text into Amharic for Mehakl and his friends, and asked him to write it in both Amharic and Dizi.

Ethiopian schools teach using the rote method, so the boys struggled with the concept of not producing a word-for-word translation. I kept repeating that we wanted a concept-based translation in good Dizi. (Of course, I was expressing this complex idea in my simple Amharic!) The breakthrough came when one boy said,

“On this page, the bird’s name is in the first place. “Was” is in the middle place. “Happy” is in the third place.” I was able then to say,

“We don’t want a place-by-place translation.”

Jeri Condar of Monmouth College, the translation team, and me, with the finished book.

Jeri Condar of Monmouth College, the entire translation team (which grew as we worked), and me, proud of the finished book.

That’s when the translation committee, as we called it, really went into action. They debated each sentence until they reached consensus: yes, that’s how we would say it best in Dizi.

Janie wondered, would Oolibee, who had never seen a children's book before, be able to "read" the pictures? To our delight, when Janie pointed to a dog, she whispered the word in Amharic.

Janie wondered, would Oolibee, who had never seen a children’s book before, be able to “read” the pictures? We were thrilled when Janie pointed to a dog and she whispered the word in Amharic.

Daphne, in Illinois, had named the little bird Henrietta. I asked the boys to choose a common Dizi girl’s name, and to our delight they suggested Oolibee. A real Oolibee was three years old, full of spunk and adventure, running around our guest house while her mother acted as sous-chef to our cook.

Another mini-project Janie and I had taken to Maji with us was to create a book with photographs of children from Maji. We asked Oolibee’s mother’s permission to photograph her. Nahosenay, with his true artist’s eye, agreed to follow little Oolibee around and photograph her. The text will be simple: she is running; she is eating; she is sitting.

So we’re making our little contribution to Dizi literacy, with the adventures of Hennrietta-Oolibee. We also got a little noun-book, made with photos of Ethiopian children in adoptive families in the USA and printed in Amharic and English translated into Dizi as well. And we have hopes of adding the verb book featuring Oolibee.

One Maji-morning, to prime the creativity pumps for her upcoming book-making workshop back in Addis, Janie showed us beautiful children’s books she’d lugged in her suitcases from the US. Some artists used torn-paper art. Some artists created with broad strokes and bright colors, others used misty neutrals with lots of white space. The beauty of children’s book art in the US is stunning.

But at the time, Addis Ababa and the book-making workshop still seemed a long way from Maji. We loved the people who were hosting, driving, guiding and cooking for us. The scenery never tired. It was going to be hard to tear ourselves away from Maji, even with the literacy project to launch ourselves into back in Addis.


The cell tower in Maji was down when Odyssey II got there. Nahosenay missed cell reception because he had a new girlfriend. But Yacob and Stephanie said the quiet surprised them. It left  space in their minds that made it worth being out of touch.

What the -- Power Monkey? (1)

I brought a Power Monkey with solar panels, but could I figure out how it was supposed to work?

power monkey audience copy

So I recruited help with that Power Monkey . . . but we never did get much power out if it.

Originally, though, the lack of connectivity had more than one member of the team anxious. How would we stay in touch with husbands and families? How would we update our supporters and friends? The power grid hasn’t reached Maji. it’s one thing to go off-grid with one of the new power technologies creeping into the scene in the USA. It’s another challenge to live altogether without. How would we keep our cameras juiced up, people asked me? Our phones? Yacob’s Jambox? Before we went we researched some options—Power Monkeys that charge with small solar panels or a car charger, clever solar blow-up lanterns for the supper table, flashlights, of course, and candles.

Once there, we stayed in a house that had been built in 1990 by John Haspels and his crew, with some help from my husband Mark.  Janie and I share a room, partly out of practicality, and partly because giggling together at night, problem solving, and sharing our impressions, is so precious.

A translation team of three Dizi men, nearing the end of a many-year project to develop an alphabet for the Dizi language and translate the New IMG_0173Testament, uses one of the rooms as an office. Our Odyssey team took over the bedrooms and our cook set up beauties burners on the floor in the kitchen area. Our hosts dug a new latrine nearby just for us. (Troy gets extra stars from the women for carrying a camp toilet in his checked luggage for night-time use in the former bathroom!) Young boys from local families make a few Ethiopian Birr carrying water in bright blue jerry cans for cooking, hand washing and our bucket-baths.

The doors of the house stood open to the light and air all day. Chickens minced through, checking for yummy crumbs. 

“Look out,” Janie said to one of them. “The cook is right here, watching you!”

IMG_0171Our struggles were temporary, of course. One of my goals in going to Maji was to gather the stories of people for whom Maji, and the neighboring government center in Tum, is home. How does the lack of power impact their lives? What difference would it make if we could help bring both public and private money together to create a mini-grid and  power co-op (maybe solar, maybe micro-hydro, maybe some combination)? Janie and I recruited Maureen to help us interview and photograph for this dream.

I’ve done some work with folks from the international arm of USA’s National Rural Electric Co-op Association (NRECA), in co-operation with Obama’s Power Africa initiative and the power sector of Ethiopia. They are developing a whole-country strategy for power. I want the people of Maji to have electricity to ease their lives. I tell Janie I feel like a politician trying to bring home the pork.

In fact, supplying power to Government centers like Tum is a priority for Ethiopia, but Maji’s remoteness has so far held back progress. Some businesses have generators. The cost of diesel is prohibitive—$4 per gallon in a place where even the top government official makes only $250 per month. Fuel is brought in by truck over roads that wind down into the Gibe River gorge and back up, deeper and deeper into the mountains of SW Ethiopia. Chinese and Korean companies have laid asphalt now, but eventually, going as far as we do toward the Sudan boarder, gravel takes over. No one is even trying to market individual solar units this far from the import sources.

According to my friends here, there was a recent government meeting with federal level officials in the nearest big town, Mizan Taferi. The provincial leaders said, “We were told Tum was a priority for electrification. What is happening?”

You are still a priority, they were told. But the grid runs out in Jemu, about eighty miles away, and to bring electricity any further, the government would need to build a sub-station. The Maji area officials left the meeting and turned to each other. “Then we will put our hope in Caroline and the people (from NRECA.” Yikes! The pressure is on!

The NRECA folks attended a world summit on power and other development issues in early January. While they were in Addis they did some of the policy research it will take to advise Ethiopia on how to improve the entire power sector—how to expand participation in the grid, which runs along every roadway, but only reaches a less than 25% of the population; how to handle the power that will be exported to neighboring countries when the dam on the Blue Nile River is finished; how to build mini-grids with solar and micro-hydro power and start co-ops to administer them.

Meanwhile, school boys in Maji tell us they study at night by flashlight—something they

Before we left, these boys got their semester grades. The tall boy on the right came first in his class.

Before we left, these boys got their semester grades. The tall boy on the right came first in his class.

have to buy themselves. What they earn carrying five gallons of water several hundred feet will buy one battery. And foreigners who will pay for water to be carried don’t come often. These boys compete for spots in the university system with youth from Addis Ababa, Jimma, Mekele—cities where electricity is lighting up their study tables.

These boys’ mothers still cook over wood fires on the floor; homes are filled with smoke, causing sinus, upper respiratory and eye infections, especially in young children. The town shuts down at eight o’clock when the sun goes down.

Still, when I asked the boys if they have hopes of passing the competitive university entrance test, they all laughed and said yes. Of course they do. Aren’t humans people of hope?

Starting Out

My rite-of-passage pilgrimage began with a bus ride to Astoria from Portland, a journey of two and a half hours for an amazing $20. I hadn’t slept well the night before, and snuggled against my backpack, I fell asleep before we were out of the Portland metro area. When I woke, the air in the bus was moist and cool, the windows were streaked. Oh yes, I thought. Fall has begun. In the Coastal Range it rains. At the coast it rains, though the foreseeable reports had predicted sunny days.

Unloading at the Astoria bus station I wandered around looking for a place to eat lunch and chose the Wet Dog Brewery and Pub for its name. I fortified myself for the coming walk with fish and chips and cider. I was self-conscious about my pack, which seemed gigantic and attention-grabbing on my back, but too heavy to carry any other way. I stood it on a bench by the entrance while I kept an eye on if from the bar (I also hadn’t yet figured out that no one else would want to pick it up, either.) 

The taxi driver who took me to Fort Stevens State Park wanted to visit, and when I told her my story, confessed that she had never gotten over the death, five years ago, of her daughter’s father. She felt responsible, because she had kicked him out. “He was always drunk or at the bars. I got tired of it. But maybe if I’d just helped him get help . . .”

I assured her he’d had plenty of chances to get help, he’d made his own decisions and she needed to forgive herself. Talking about my hike reminded her that she has wanted to hike Saddle Mountain in the spring, when the wild flowers are in bloom. Maybe this year she would do that, she said. Maybe it would help her start over. As I paid her and said good-bye, I wondered how many other people I would meet whose full names I wouldn’t find out, whose story’s ending I wouldn’t hear.

American service men inspect a shell crater after the Japanese attack on Fort Stevens.

American service men inspect a shell crater after the Japanese attack on Fort Stevens.

She had dropped me off at Battery Russell, and I wandered around getting my bearings and reading the historical brochures and placards.  This was the only spot on the continental United States to be fired on by a foreign power since the war of 1812–in June of 1942, a Japanese submarine ten miles out to sea slipped beneath a fishing fleet and fired 5.5 inch deck guns in about a fifteen minute attack. There were no injuries or casualties; one shell created a crater in the local baseball field and others fell in the forest and on the beach.  After the war, Japanese Captain Maeji Tagami admitted he thought he might be firing on a submarine attack station and would not have dared if he’d known the fire-power the battery had. Fortunately for him, the guns at Battery Russell stayed silent, because they didn’t know how sustained an attack it was, and didn’t want to give away their position. After that, civilian guard squads began patrolling the Oregon coast.

After I read this surprising local history, I walked some miles to the hiker-biker section of Fort Stevens State Park campground (bikers in this case are not the Harley guys but people on bicycles, riding the popular bike route down Highway 101 and along scenic side-roads). Oregon State Park hiker-biker campgrounds are small, with no vehicle access, but with picnic tables, fire pits and usually a near-by port-a-potty. In Fort Stevens I learned that one quiet mission of a good picnic table is to deliver packs directly onto hikers’ backs. Hoisting my pack from the ground to shoulder height was not easy nor pretty—it was much harder to handle its 35 pound weight with my arms alone, than to carry it on my hips and legs, resting against my back, anchored snuggly against my shoulders.


It wasn’t long before the second sole joined the first. The duct tape needed replacing once, when I wore through it on the bottoms, but otherwise held for the whole trip! Now to find some Shoe Goo . . . Mark fixed more than one pair of my shoes with Shoe Goo.

Next to me at the camp ground was a man who was biking from Vancouver, BC to San Francisco. We shared bemused frustrations that our “guides” in blogs and books were in their 20s, and that we no longer had their stamina. That night, his Thermarest mattress developed a slow leak. Meanwhile, I had been too careful to heed the operating warnings to screw the valve of my new Primus stove onto the fuel canister gently. Between eating my reconstituted lasagna and heating up dishwashing water, all my fuel had leaked out. In the morning, I did not find more fuel in the little KOA store nearby, and walking the mile back to my camp, the sole of my camp sandal decided to part ways from the footbed. I hadn’t even started walking yet. How quickly misadventure could find me. How much my neighbor and I were going to be affected by our simple problems: sleeping, eating. It doesn’t take much to be very uncomfortable once we leave home. As I carefully repaired my sandal with duct tape, I imagined Mark watching over my shoulder. He was chuckling.

Planning my trip, I’d been stymied by the lack of a town or campsite within twenty miles of Fort Stevens State Park on the northern tip of Oregon’s coast. Both my blogger and the official OCT site were suspiciously silent about camping in unofficial spots, but both said don’t camp on the beach, and warned that patrols will run campers off the beaches near towns and state parks. The last thing I wanted was trouble with the law. That, I thought, would completely destroy the spirit of my pilgrimage.  I imagined the incredible inconvenience of packing up in the sandy darkness and wandering on . . . to where? I didn’t realize, until I’d been on the beach longer, the dangers. By the end of three weeks, I was watching the ocean over my shoulder with some trepidation—after seeing memorials to strong young men drowned within three minutes of being swept off rocks by sneaker waves, the tsunami warning signs and escape route maps at every state park, the signs warning against napping on the beach or standing on logs, which weigh thousands of pounds and could be lifted by the surf, or could roll.

But there was no other option, I was going to have to camp on the beach halfway between Fort Stevens and the town of Seaside on my first real night out.

Low tide at mid-morning gave me a wide, packed beach to walk on. As I came out of the forested campground area to the beach, I felt my spirit lift in response to the ocean that faded away miles from me; the call of the waves, one replacing another constantly, never pausing; the bright sunlight on the sand and water. How could the beach not be a healing place for me to be?   

The rusting bones of the Peter Iredale.

The rusting bones of the Peter Iredale.

I headed out, south of the wreck of the Peter Iredale, the most accessible wreck of the “Graveyard of the Pacific”, a treacherous band of coast from Tillamook, Oregon to Vancouver, BC. The Peter Iredale, with her royal sails above double top and topgallant sails (I don’t know what these are, but they sound wonderful) had set out from Liverpool, England to Portland, Oregon in 1906 with 1000 pounds of ballast, 25 crew members and two stowaways. Approaching the Columbia bar (which has accounted for 2000 wrecks) the Peter Iredale ran into mist, rain and wind and was blown to shore. In the weeks of waiting for weather to clear so they could tow the ship back out to sea, she listed to the side and become embedded in the sand. Captain Lawrence abandoned her with a toast: “May God bless you, and may your bones bleach in the sands.” Being iron, those bones have rusted instead.

In the misty morning air, I saw what I thought at first were jeeps carved out of sand. When I got closer I saw that they were military trucks, exactly the color of the sand. They had hauled trailers to the beach, and men were swarming around, launching rubber rafts into the surf. I wondered if a search was going on. The surf was too calm for surfingI, something done in wet suits on our beaches. Fishing boats were white dots far beyond the helicopter that whipped over and circled out from shore. Children may splash in the foam, but no one really swims in the Pacific Ocean on the Oregon coast.

An hour later, the jeeps roared by, followed by an emergency vehicle which sank into the sand and got stuck. When I came abreast I felt confident enough that there hadn’t been a real emergency to joke with the young man dashing from one tire to another, pulling at the sand.

“I hope you don’t have someone dying in there!”

He laughed. “It was just a training. Now we’re just trying to get off the beach before the tide comes in.” 

I walked on, the tortoise to their hare, picturing their truck lifted off its wheels by the tide and washing out to sea.

Around noon I reached Sunset Beach State Park, a day-use site about six miles along. I walked up from the beach and ate my lunch perched on a big rock. My plan was to go just a little further before I camped, but I had the whole afternoon, the sun was hot, and I wanted shade. I looked around for something more in keeping with the spirit of a pilgrimage, but the only shade I found was a band along the east side of the outhouse (vault toilet is the new term) there at the wayside. I leaned myself and my pack against the wall and took out my journal to write.

As I rested by the Sunset Beach outhouse, a group of ecologists from the Willamette Valley, on the other side of the Coast Range, drove up. They clustered at the trailhead a few feet away for a mini-lecture by a local park ranger. I sidled over to listen. Early settlers had stabilized the dunes by planting European dune grass and what they thought were coastal pines, she said. But the species of pine they planted grew tall and straight, more like the lodgepole than the coastal pine. “They fell like matchsticks in the storm of 2007.” In the Great Coastal Gale of 2007, winds of 129-137 mph had whipped the coast of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, and given us Oregon’s only technically defined hurricane.

Scotch Broom is beautiful in the spring. Unfortunately, it's growth habits and aggressiveness make it an ugly invader.

Scotch Broom is beautiful in the spring. Unfortunately, it’s growth habits and aggressiveness make it an ugly invader.

In the aftermath, local residents worried about the fire hazard of all that felled wood so the park district cleared it, but then Scotch broom, a European import, moved in. Scotch Broom  grows aggressively. It produces thousands of seeds every year, and the seeds stay viable for years. It spreads into monoculture stands that crowd out native plants and habitat.  It’s a noxious weed in India, New Zealand and South America as well as Oregon. The ranger talked about observing what a site “wants to be” and recreating preferred eco systems. She spoke with regret—this site wants to be a coastal prairie, but because of the Scotch Broom they’ve had to replant pines. If the still immature coastal pines win the battle for dominance, she hopes that they will eventually shade out the encroaching invader.

The ecologists drove on, and I spent several more hours of refuge  by the outhouse until, when the sun began to drop toward the sea, I set off down the beach to set up camp. It wouldn’t hurt to shorten my walk into Seaside the following day, I decided, so I walked for about an hour. Tillamook Head appeared ahead of me, the point that separates Seaside from Cannon Beach.

Gulls lined up between the edge of the sand  and the dune watched me as I trudged by.

Gulls lined up between the edge of the sand and the dune watched me as I trudged by.

I began to suspect that camping on the beach sounds more romantic than it is. I knew enough to worry about high tide—I could see where the last tide had reached, but might a sneaker wave rise up in the middle of the night to sweep me off to sea, tangled in my bivouac tent? There was no picnic table to lift me or my pack out of the sand, so sand would get into everything. Since I don’t  a sleep with a gale-force fan, the ocean was going to disturb me with loud talking all night long. And there was the matter of no water or facilities. Since I had no choice, I walked clear up to the low dune that parallels the ocean on that stretch of the coast, found a level spot on the sand and pitched my tent.

All the vehicles and day visitors disappeared before the sun set. I experimented (moving slowly so I didn’t kick sand up into my food) and found out that freeze dried food will indeed reconstitute in cold water, and that cold water will not enhance its taste. A chilly mist rose up and sent me to bed early. As I crawled into the bivouac tent, again, I moved slowly and carefully so that I would take as little sand as possible into my sleeping bag with me.

I got up once in the night. To the south—it looked so very close—I saw the lights of Seaside sparkling red and white under the high full moon. I smiled. For the first time I felt as though I really was on a pilgrimage, the dots really would connect, one step would lead to another, one day would lead to the next, and my way would lead to one new place after another. Actually, and metaphorically.

In the morning I woke early. The colors of the sea and beach were as light as a watercolor. The wind had stilled. The air felt warm. The beach was mine, as if it was the first morning of creation and I was the first woman. I walked down to the tide line, shed my clothes and waded up to my knees into the ocean. I splashed water on my body and laughed at the cascade of goose bumps. I probably said out loud what Mark and I had called to each other in Lake Longano, Ethiopia, when we went for our morning swim: “Re-freshing!”

Facing October

Mark took his last fluttery breaths at noon, a year ago October 30th. I’d been up with him all night, because he’d had a seizure at around 8:00 and then started that end-of-life breathing, with its long pauses and deep sighs.

Fun game, easy to learn, a family favorite, and now sentimental with memories.

Fun game, easy to learn, a family favorite, and now sentimental with memories.

My daughter and son sat up with me. As we began the journey of losing and grieving the man who had been husband and father, we quietly played a favorite game, Ticket to Ride. We collected train markers and spread them across the map, not noticing at the time the reverberations from all those American love songs, the woman who stands sorrowing on the platform, the man called away by the train’s haunting whistle to adventures unknown.

When the sun came up that morning, Miriam and Jesse decided to go on to work. We’d had so many false alarms that month, none of us trusted any more that we would recognize the end, and we imagined Mark able to go on with his heroic breathing forever. I settled down to sleep a little. I arranged pillows so I could hold Mark’s hand, even though there was no indication he still heard me, felt me, or cared whether I was present. I woke a few hours later—maybe I’d heard a change in his breathing. I told him I’d be right back, and stepped into the bathroom. Crossing back into the bedroom I heard him sigh twice, softly. Then his body fell silent. He was gone.

October this year hit me with unexpected force. Our wedding anniversary on July 29th had been the last important date I’d spent for the first time without Mark this year. What I forgot was how hard October last year had been. Mark had stopped eating, and I hadn’t known how long a strong and relatively young man can live before his heart gives in. He was afraid he would have severe pain at the end, and he couldn’t hold on to the doctors’ and nurses’ reassurances, that when organs are slowly shutting down under the attack of cancer, they release endorphins—pain may ease up, not increase. He got increasingly confused. He thought there’d been a murder and didn’t know what to say to the reporters. He became convinced God would reject him. He thought I was trying to poison him. He woke up from a nap and told me he’d been “dukin’ it out with the Japanese devil”.

He also got increasingly helpless and needed to be turned, needed to be fed the few ice chips per day he was living on, needed to be given Adavan (to relieve his agitation) in a syringe with only the tiniest bit of water so he didn’t choke. The all-important morphine from his pump was going into a port in his arm, a temporary port only designed for a couple of weeks’ use, and it began to deteriorate and leak as the month dragged on. Could he make it over the River before we had to put him through the ordeal of opening a new port? The uncertainty wore on me. I wasn’t sleeping well. Mark was and was no longer my husband. It was confusing. It was agonizing. I wanted it over, but I was as scared as he was about what would come next.

I hadn’t thought of the date of his death as a new anniversary for Mark and my life together, but I learned on the 30th this year, as night fell outside my rain-streaked windows, that I will indeed shy my face aside and brace myself as I enter the next few Octobers. The actual date of Mark’s death will be a tender one for me for the rest of my life, but it is not a wrenching one. It was the date when what had become inevitable came to pass.

I asked my kids early in October if they wanted to do anything special on the 30th, and got no responses. It was a work day—we are in four cities, on two continents. So I groped for what would be meaningful for me. I spent the 29th at a Trappist Abbey outside the small town of Laffayette, along Highway 99W near Salem. I’d felt calm and upbeat approaching the end of October, though, suspiciously, I’d developed three small canker sores in my mouth and a blemish on my chin. I, who am usually so careful and responsible, knocked a wine glass off the shelf at Goodwill and stared, amazed, at the shattered splinters at my feet. I then left my teakettle on the stove so long, boiling so dry, that the nob on the lid melted down the side and into a blob of hard plastic on the stovetop.

Never beatified, she is called Blessed Julian of Norwich because she is so loved for her insights into God's love.

Never beatified, she is called Blessed Julian of Norwich because she is so loved for her insights into God’s love.

I also lay awake late into the night before my retreat at the Abbey. After morning mass I nodded off over my prayers and readings until I gave up and crawled under a throw on the couch and slept. At lunch, a Trappist-style silent meal, the Beatles’ most soothing song looped through my head, “Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be,” as though to relieve my guilt over sleeping away half of my retreat. On the dining room’s bulletin board, the daily calendar’s wisdom for the 29th was Julian of Norwich’s reassurance: “But all things shall be well, and all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

In the afternoon I took a walk, meditated, read, prayed and journaled. In the end, the day was just what I wanted and needed—even the long nap. I did feel a little guilty that I was thinking and praying about my future, not remembering Mark. Those pesky “shoulds,” will I ever be free of them?

The camera caught teen-aged Mark and me in an unguarded moment.

The camera caught teen-aged Mark and me in an unguarded moment.

I woke early the morning of the 30th with the tender pop song line, “My darling, you are wonderful to me,” running through my head. The only idea I’d had for honoring Mark that day was to light a candle, thanking him for “lighting up” my life for almost fifty years (in high school we’d enjoyed a shy, sweet young-love relationship). I took a candle out of my over-stuffed candle drawer and lit it before I even got my breakfast organized. Holding the burning match, I looked around at the candles all over my new, single-woman’s home—on sconces, in carved candle holders from Kenya, on pedestals, in pewter candle holders, in crystal. Why stop with one?

I lit all my  candles (twenty-three of them) and spent the morning surrounded by their flickering light. Light that shines in darkness and isn’t overcome. Light that also represents warmth. Light coming directly from fire. Some anthropologists think it was fire that made us human, fire that made it possible to break down hard-to-digest proteins and expanded our food sources, fire that gave us time off from constant “gazing” and allowed us to take in enough energy to feed our ravenous brains and fuel higher thinking.

As moving into a rich, new life without Mark becomes more and more real, I find myself reacting to the implications of that with ambivalence at the best of times, with positively queasy emotional indigestion at others. I have to hold even tighter to mystery.

Sorrow and struggle do leave us deeper, richer, more complex if we submit to learning what there is to learn—all the sages say so. Places I was emotionally stuck have jiggled loose under the stresses of the last eighteen months. I feel lighter, freer. Grief has washed away some dross and left treasures I didn’t expect. Can I appreciate the growth without seeming glad for the trauma and loss? And if God redeems struggle by enriching me, does that mean I’m being lazy on days I find wider valleys and smoother paths? Can I assume plenty of trouble will find me, I don’t have to look for it? The new feelings of joy that are starting to come to me—can I enjoy them conscience-free?

This happy moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn Academy staff Christmas party, Kenya,1999.

This happy moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn Academy staff Christmas party, Kenya, 1999.

This overly-serious Calvinist inches forward on the journey, learning as she goes, deeply grateful for her long marriage and willing, just barely willing, to start letting it go.

Everything Turns

The Basillica de Santiago

The Basillica de Santiago

In the summer of 2013 my sister Jan and her husband walked for a week in France along the ancient pilgrimage trail called the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. The city of Santiago, in western Spain, was built in Medieval times around a cathedral where a relic of St. James, the patron of knights, laborers and pilgrims is said to have been buried. On the coast, a few miles further, Finisterre was believed to be the westernmost point of Europe, and there sins could be cast into the sea and washed away.  Some historians say these pilgrimages to the sea began long before the Christian era, but in Medieval times pilgrims began to walk to Santiago and Finisterra from as far away as Russia, merging like rivulets along the way to form a river of millions, protected from bandits and raiders by international honor for pilgrims, and served by hostels and ale houses established all along the way. Jan was on this pilgrim way when I told the family that the doctors had found Mark’s aggressive cancer. She and her party lit candles in cathedrals, and placed stones on wayside cairns for him.

When I heard their story I knew that’s what I needed to do at the end of my first year without Mark—a pilgrimage. To delineate these two parts of my life. To leave the difficult months behind and start to focus on the future. I wondered, what friend would be free to go with me? Or could I do it alone? And just as I had that thought, I came to the suggestion in the guide book, “If you are undertaking this pilgrimage for spiritual reasons, consider going alone.” That’s when I got excited. I imagined studying French and Spanish while I grieved (why not?) and walking in Europe as a pilgrim, heading west to cast my sorrows into the sea and start fresh.

The language study never happened. This year I couldn’t even concentrate to read. But walking, getting out of my head, getting my body into the physical world did happen. It happened a lot, so the idea of a walking pilgrimage as a rite of passage stayed with me.

One problem: Mark died in October, and October wasn’t going to be a good time to be outside anywhere in the temperate zone. As I thought more about rites of passage, I realized they have a wide target area. Among the Nuers of South Sudan and the Oromos of Ethiopia, men pass from boyhood to adulthood—from youth to wisdom—in age groups. Among the Nuers, any given boy may be on the older or younger side of his age group when the Men of the Spear decide the timing is right for their ordeal ceremony—when the weather is warm, when the cows are giving milk to nourish the boys, when the odds are good for successful healing from the bone-deep lines he will cut across their foreheads.

We make a parallel set of calculations—when we’re ready to marry we choose a weekend when our mother-in-law can come from New York, when our brides maid or best man is available, when the venue of our dreams is free. Whether we’re completely ready to enter the adult world or not, we graduate in late May with the rest of our college classmates. There is a randomness about the exact date of a rite of passage, and still it works. Surely September for my rite of passage would work.

In June I was delayed from moving into my new house in Portland. At the end of a year of pain and chaos, living in my grown children’s homes and families, not having either of my own—could I bear to live out of a carry-on roller-bag and sleep on my sister’s futon for eleven more days? Beth Rasmussen, my daughter-in-law, suggested I fill the time by doing things I have never done before . . . such as go to the nude beach on Sauvie Island. Yikes! I told her the time for that had passed a few decades ago!

Trying to come up with a plan of my own, of course I thought of walking. I thought of the coast. And I discovered that there’s an Oregon Coast Trail (the OCT), an official hiking pathway, walking the beaches for about half of the 400 miles, scaling the headlands that break through our beaches, and (around certain rocky bays,) walking the shoulder of Highway 101, the artery that connects the West Coast of North America from Mexico to Alaska.

And September on the Oregon coast is one of its best months.

The woman who introduced me to the Oregon Coast Trail is a blogger, Bonnie Henderson, who hiked from Astoria to the California border on the OCT in 2009, averaging seventeen miles a day. If she could do it, I could do it, I thought. I’m in good shape. I had walked my first ten mile hike when I visited Mark’s parents in Kentucky in May. I had found a trail that reclaimed the old railway bed through the Cumberland Gap, a trail first pounded out across the gap in the Cumberland Mountains by Eastern Forest Bison, then followed by Native American hunters as what was called the Warriors’ Path. In a classic example of US land being wrested from the native residents, attacks on settlers were militarily put down and a wealthy land speculator paid Daniel Boone to hack a rough road through to the Kentucky River. In the next decade 300,000 settlers poured through the gap from Virginia and Tennessee to Kentucky. I had followed up that long hike with others in Bend, Oregon following the irrigation canal, and in parks in the foothills of the Cascades.

Tillamook ice cream--a sight to make Oregonians smile.

Tillamook ice cream–a sight to make Oregonians smile.

In June, while I waited for my new house to be ready, I packed a book and one change of clothes and took the bus to the coast. I walked about fifty miles, from Cannon Beach to Oceanside, west of the town of Tillamook, where the most popular Oregon cheese and ice cream are made.

That walk sealed the plan. In September I would make my rite of passage on the Oregon coast, a journey from Astoria to the California border, from grieving to putting together a rich new life.

I trained by looking up urban trails in Portland and walking early in the morning, before the summer days got too hot. I borrowed a pack. I went with my sister Jan on an overnight hike on Mount Hood. I talked with her about trail recipes.

All these vibrant colors I found unexpected at Kelly Point Park seemed to confirm the joy I would find in walking.

All these vibrant colors I found unexpected at Kelly Point Park seemed to confirm the joy I would find in walking.

For my final training hike I loaded up my pack in early September, and set out for Kelly Point Park, a thirteen mile round trip walk from my house. Some urban project has given Portlanders cheerfully painted parking barriers at the first fishing spot in Kelly Point Park. I was still feeling fairly fresh and excited when I got there, took a break, snapped some pictures of my new best friend—my niece’s backpack—and ate a power bar.

Does every journey turn at some point into a painful trudge?

By the time I got back to North Portland, I could hardly walk. I staggered slowly along the sidewalks of my own neighborhood, consumed with thoughts of who I could call for a ride. From Chautauqua Boulevard and Lombard, six blocks to my house on to Wall and Depauw streets? Unbelievable. Surely I could make it home. I was only one week from my projected leaving date, I had all my gear collected and packed, and now I knew there was no way I could make the hike as Bonnie Henderson described it. She is one tough cookie.

I studied the map: could I walk 15-25 miles a day without a pack and stay in towns instead? But I had all that gear, and my pack packed so tidily, with everything in its own pocket, and all that intriguing freeze-dried food. So I cut my ambitions down and studied the walk to Florence, Oregon, the halfway town. I spent hours creating my own itinerary of 8-13 mile days that would end me up in either a town or a campground, working with Bonnie Henderson’s blog, the Oregon state’s OCT page, the Biking-the-Coast web page, lists of state parks and Google Maps.

Comfortable, funky, inexpensive (if you stay in one of the dorms) this hostel has a European feel. Wish we had more of these all over the state!

Comfortable, funky, inexpensive (if you stay in one of the dorms) this hostel has a European feel. Wish we had more of these all over the state!

A week later, when I got to Seaside, Oregon I said to the proprietress of the Seaside Lodge and International Hostel, “I’m thinking of this as a pilgrimage, and I’m finding that everything has turned metaphorical.”

She said, “Life is a pilgrimage, and everything is metaphorical. We just don’t usually notice.”

My first metaphor had begun to echo in my head as I stumbled home from Kelly Point Park: can I do this hard thing? Walking the Oregon coast day after day, my physical world and my emotional world came more and more into congruence–both on a journey, both struggling with a question that was physical and spiritual at the same time: can I do this hard thing?