From myths and fairy tales, guidance galore
I had spent five days alone in the Arctic wilderness, and now I was hiking back to the lake to meet the old de Havilland bush plane that would fly me eighty-five miles south, to the wilderness outfitter’s post that was itself 150 miles above the Arctic Circle and accessible only by small plane or dogsled.
I had wanted to experience true wilderness, to be immersed in a landscape that lived only for itself. The elderly pilot flew me over rippling expanses of forest and river, all dappled green and flowing silver, and then he landed in the middle of the lake. I pulled on the hip boots the outfitter had loaned me and jumped into the water. The pilot leaned out to wrest me into my backpack, and off I waded to set up a camp where a line of skinny Giacometti-style spruces met the bare expanse of tundra.
On the first day I was so nervous I barely ventured farther than my little yellow tent. Gradually I got bolder. One day I climbed a mountain and peered out into the vastness, both hoping and dreading that I’d spot a grizzly. Another day I sat on a hillock, slowly rotating myself in a westward circle to follow the path of the sun as it circumscribed the midsummer sky. The silence was so deep I could hear mice hunting among leaves. One bright sunny night, I awoke to the call of wolves not far away.
I had done it. I was a fifty-three-year-old woman who had lived five days alone in the Arctic wilderness. And now I was ready to go back to a hot shower, a real bed, a reassuring call to my husband back home, and a meal unpeppered with mosquitoes. I wriggled into my backpack and set off toward the lake about a three-quarter mile from my campsite, confident, cocky, and eager to tell my story.
Suddenly, I tripped and landed on a clump of tussocks with my face in a puddle of water. I struggled to jam my knees and elbows down and push myself up, but lying on the tundra was like being sprawled over a scattering of meditation cushions, with humps of solid ground beneath some parts of the body and six inches of watery space gaping under other parts. I couldn’t get a purchase on solid land to lift myself. I tried to flip myself over, but my backpack, with its forty pounds of gear, turned out to be inadequate as a fulcrum. It occurred to me that I could die here, face planted in a bog. That alarmed me enough that I jerked my knees up, jammed my elbows into any solidity they could reach, rolled over, and heaved myself free.
The journey home can be as fraught with pitfalls as the journey out.
It is the journey out that beckons, the longing to immerse yourself in the alluring, the wild, the healing, the holy Far Place. With limited supplies and a determination to reach a goal you’re desperate enough to believe will change your life, prove a point, unearth a treasure, save the world, or assure your place in the record books, you set out. You know you will not be permitted to attain your prize without proving that you’re worthy of it, so you have prepared carefully. You studied up on the kinds of weathers and obstacles you might encounter and chose your equipment accordingly. You mapped your route. You said your goodbyes.
Almost as soon as the journey has begun, however, you discover that the surprises that befall you are the very ones you never anticipated. The possibilities you packed for are not the ones that loom before you and threaten to stop you from reaching your goal. They come in the form of dragons to fight, harsh terrain, seducers who want to keep you in their beguiling arms, hunger, loneliness, icy peaks, and many wrong turns. You allow nothing to stop you, at least not for long. For although you may be temporarily distracted, you know you have something great and urgent to accomplish, something on which your life and quite possibly the lives of many others depend. So on you forge. And at last you succeed. You reach your goal and claim the treasure that has been awaiting you. You stand at the peak of the path you’ve scaled, both physically and spiritually.
And now, proud and confident, you turn toward home. You have done what you set out to do, so it’s easy to assume that all the trials and obstacles you were destined to confront have fallen away and that, from this moment forth, your footsteps will fall on only the smoothest of trails. For was it not the journey out that had always been the real challenge to your mettle? As you start for home, you cease to view the people you meet as bearers of vital clues, and regard them instead as mere fixtures of the path. The landscape that earlier was marked with novel details becomes a blur. You rush past, eyes pinned on the beautiful view that as yet you can’t even see, except in your mind’s eye: home.
What could possibly go wrong?
Many of the great tales of mythic journeyers affirm this assumption. Toward the end of a long quest replete with love and heartbreak, Sir Bors, along with his companions, Sirs Galahad and Perceval, is granted sight of the Holy Grail. He helps restore it to the isle of Sarras, buries and mourns his two friends, then makes the journey back to Camelot in a few breathless sentences. For Psyche, like all too many heroines in the fairy tales that have followed, a courageous journey comes to a happy, milquetoast end immediately after her reunion with the beloved. Even the mischievous Monkey of Chinese legend, along with his comic friends, are swept straight home in a magical wind after receiving from the Buddha himself the sacred tablets they’ve sought.
There are exceptions, of course. The epic of Odysseus is all about a man’s ten-year effort to get back home to Ithaca. In the ancient Sumerian tale, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, must spend the entire journey back from the Underworld pondering and negotiating what she is prepared to sacrifice for her freedom. Yet, on the whole, the arduous journeys of myth and legend end abruptly. After the heroines and heroes have claimed the treasure they were so driven to retrieve, they simply turn around toward home—and then arrive home. As I learned in Alaska, however, it can be hazardous to focus more on the being back than on the process of getting back. Perils and opportunities line the path of the return trip too. The journey home is at least as crucial as the journey out, for it is this one that reunites you with the place that knows you and the people who have waited anxiously for news of you.
Here then, is an equipment list for the journey home, inspired by what worked—or didn’t work so well—for some of the heroines and heroes of myth.
- 1 pair beautiful, practical shoes
- a Sisyphean mat
- a safe place to keep the treasure
- a hollow reed
- a detachable feather for your cap
- 1 (and only 1) work glove
- a Homewise Listening Device
- a Sacred Warning System app for your smart phone
- a pouch for the gems of your story
Some items on the list are important for the entire journey, while others are especially crucial once you get close to home.
- 1 pair beautiful, practical shoes: Shoes play an important part in many journey tales. The heroine in the fairy tale “Finn the Falcon” must wear out three pairs of iron shoes before she is reunited with her beloved. Perseus receives a pair of winged sandals when he sets off to slay the Gorgon Medusa, and Jason loses a shoe at the beginning of his adventure with the Argonauts. Dorothy clicks the heels of her ruby red shoes to get back to Kansas from Oz, and Cinderella’s lost glass slipper returns her to her prince. Having the right pair of shoes is essential for any expedition. Some shoes are glassine gems that lead to love, while others solder you down to the ground to test how much you really want that thing you’re pursuing. Your shoes for the journey home should be a combination of the two: heavy enough to slow you down, so you don’t misstep (as I did in the Arctic), and beautiful enough that you want to keep looking at them and, in so doing, attune to the wonders that still unfold before you.
- a Sisyphean mat: Even poor Sisyphus has the opportunity to rest and take stock now and then. Although his eternal punishment is to shove a boulder up a mountain time after time after time, only to watch it tumble back down again, so he, time after time after time, then has the opportunity to follow it. What a relief that return trek must be! Maybe Sisyphus has a mat that he can spread out on the ground and stretch out upon. Maybe he lies there considering eternity, his own mistakes, and the unforgiving nature of the gods before clambering to his feet yet again. On your homeward journey, you, too, will appreciate a mat you can lie on occasionally as you reflect on what you’ve been through and what you’re returning to. Even if you’ve been down a certain path a thousand times, rest and contemplation always bring new insights.
- a safe place to keep the treasure: All too often, a mythic journeyer gets careless at the very end of the trip and forgets to take care of the treasure he or she has struggled so hard to attain. Gilgamesh, for example, leaves the plant of eternal youth on a stone while he bathes in a pool, and during those moments of his blissful self-absorption, a serpent spies the prize, swallows it, and immediately sloughs off all its old, dead skin. Be sure to put your treasure in a safe place, so it will arrive with you intact.
- a hollow reed: It is important, as you near home, to consider how you might do things differently this time around. It sometimes happens that pilgrims to distant lands and exotic teachings arrive back in the home community clinging unconsciously to the notion that where they’ve been is far more special than where they’re going and that it is not their responsibility, but that of the place they’ll be settling in, to be accommodating. The Hopi creation story offers a different perspective. After trying to make a life in three previous worlds and losing each of them because of their lack of respect and reverence, the people receive from the Creator a hollow reed, through which they must climb to reach their fourth and current home on the desert mesas. The Creator warns them that they must treat this new home with care and attention to ceremony. It is helpful for modern journeyers, too, to carry a hollow reed that they can climb into as the path nears home, to remind them that where they’re heading is sacred and how they live here has implications for themselves, the place, and everyone else.
The return journey demands its own discipline, its own alertness to needs and opportunities in the homeland that could make all the difference in what happens after your pilgrimage has come to an end. As you enter that familiar land, the river and grasses and hills that know you rush forth to embrace you. Soon, now, you will encounter your loved community and the people who have awaited you all this time. They have wondered about you, worried about you. Perhaps they have had no news of you for months or even years. At times they feared that the distant places you were journeying in would keep you and never allow you to return to them. It is important to remember that here, home, is where you will be manifesting that wisdom and experience you gleaned while you were away. Pema Chödrön makes this point in When Things Fall Apart. The problem with comparing the spiritual journey to ascending a mountain, she points out, is that “we leave all the others behind…. In the process of discovering bodhicitta [the wish that all beings attain enlightenment], the journey goes down, not up.” As you approach home, then, how will you greet the people who stayed behind?
Here are a few items you’ll need to pack for the last stage of the journey.
- a detachable feather for your cap: A tale from Benin holds a tacit reminder that the triumphs in your story may be uncomfortably linked to the blunders, real or perceived. A confident, determined young woman named Ahla braves danger to make her way to the bedside of the prince she loves—only to discover that, as prophesied, a night of love has heralded his death. Ahla then walks through a ring of fire to bring the prince back to life, a trial even his frantic parents were unable to endure. Imagine how that mother-queen, that father-king must feel as they watch their son and his beloved make their way back to them, hand in hand, through the ashes. This, after all, is the woman who has both killed their son and gifted him with life and the freedom to love, and how is she to be met? So by all means stick a feather in your cap in celebration of the extraordinary feat you’ve accomplished—but make sure you can quickly whisk it out of sight when circumstances demand a little humility.
- 1 (and only 1) work glove: True, you have gained much wisdom through your exploits, but you may still need a helping hand to accomplish a decisively important final task. This is a lesson Sir Galahad models well. When he embarks at the isle of Sarras with Sir Bors and Sir Perceval, he must take the Holy Grail to the place where Josephus was consecrated as the first Christian bishop. Galahad approaches a crippled man on the dock and asks him to help them carry the heavy silver table on which the sacred vessel stands. The man demurs, pointing out his obvious disability, but Galahad gently insists. The man takes hold of the table and is immediately healed. Packing only one glove for the trip home will remind you that someone—perhaps someone you least expect—wears the glove that matches yours.
- a Homewise Listening Device: This handy tool automatically attunes you to the people in your home territory whom you need to pay attention to. When you return from a great journey, it’s tempting to assume that your adventure has made you an expert in many things and that there is nothing for you to learn from it. This is not necessarily true. In the Navajo Creation story, the young warrior twins seek out their father, the Sun, and ask him to prepare them to kill the monsters that have been terrorizing the people. The Sun outfits them with flint shirts, stone knives, and helmets of flint scales. He presents them with quivers of arrows made of chain lightning, sheet lightning, sunbeams, and rainbows. As it happens, however, the twins still don’t have everything they need. When they return to the land between the Sacred Mountains, they are greeted by the Holy People, who sit them down and educate them about how each of the monsters they’ll have to confront was conceived. Armed now not just with weapons of war, but with knowledge as well, they are truly ready. The Homewise Listening Device enables you, too, to zero in on those who have valuable advice it will behoove you to follow.
- a Sacred Warning app for your smart phone: This useful app sounds an alarm at the very instant you’re about to forget the one thing you were told you absolutely must not forget upon arriving back in your own land. Many mythical pilgrims would have benefited from this helpful reminder. Leading Eurydice out of the Underworld, Orpheus forgets that he must not, under any circumstance, turn back to look at her, and in so doing loses her forever. Handsome, strong Oisin leaves his beloved Niamh in the Land of Eternal Youth for a visit home to Ireland with the warning not to let his feet touch the ground. But when he leans down from his horse to help some men move a rock, he slips and falls and ages three hundred years. The Sacred Warning app will beep insistently when you’re on the verge of ignoring the advice you must follow.
- a pouch for the gems of your story: As you return home from your great journey, you will naturally begin sifting through all that has happened and considering how you will tell your story to those you’ve left behind. Each trial, each trail, each close call is a sparkling, multifaceted gem of your story. Treat these treasures with care and carry a special pouch to store them in. Consider, on the journey home, what parts you want to tell, but resist the temptation to rehearse; different occasions will naturally call forth a different array of gems. Remember that it may not be appropriate to reveal certain parts of the story for quite some time, if ever. Share generously and with humility, for each of these precious stones has been a gift that cost you dearly.
Finally, know that, like any great adventure story, yours will ultimately continue to glitter, so that people in many generations to come will find in it jewels of usefulness and inspiration for their own journey.♦