Marveling at the Marrow ~ Betsy Johnson


 When my daughter and I pilgrimage together, we see dead things. Not intentionally, mind you. We are not visiting reliquary, morgue, or cemetery but forest and beach. And we do not even realize we are on a pilgrimage until we get back to the car. We imagine we are hiking, visiting “someplace interesting.” The Universe, if you believe in that kind of thing (and I do) has other plans.

Our first such encounter took place eight years ago in the Lost 40, a patch of virgin forest in northern Minnesota. If giants needed pencils for whatever giants might need pencils for, this is where they could have found them. In the Lost 40, pine trees that were hundreds of years old rose straight and tall out of a late spring blanket of snow. My daughter and I trudged along the wet deep paths, marveling at the girth of this tree, no, this one!, and there it was—a dead owl. Even now, I’m not entirely convinced that it was dead. It had no visible wound and looked as if it were asleep, a gentle breeze ruffling its feathers that were perfect in the way that seashells and snowflakes are perfect. How could such an arresting fractal beauty belong to a dead thing? The owl lay at the foot of a massive red pine. No tracks or light brushes of wing disturbed the snow around it. An owl keeling over and falling out of a tree didn’t seem possible, but I could come up with no other explanation.

I didn’t ask my daughter what her thoughts were as we stared down at the dead bird, because I was awash with envy. My mind is often a highway clogged with marching ants, endlessly searching for something to feed on, so the calm (dead) owl personified a reprieve from the restlessness always churning inside. What I wouldn’t give to quieten and rest.

My daughter and I finally wandered on, ending our walk by standing at the edge of a hill. The forest behind, a wetland below. Even though snow covered the ground, spring was already doing its work—the trills of frogs rose into the day’s shine. As we stood there, my inclination was to turn back to the owl. Before I could, my daughter slipped her arm through mine and kept me firmly facing light and life.

I wish I could say I learned my lesson that day, but all you would have to do is ask my seat mates on the recent long flights from Minnesota to South Africa and they would tell you emphatically that restlessness still rules the day. Traveling to visit my daughter in Port Elizabeth, where she was doing a semester-long study abroad, I was up, down, and all around in seats better suited for slabs of frozen lamb rather than for living, breathing human bodies. In my defense, one of the reasons I was moving this much was to prevent edema, especially since I wasn’t a year out from a lumpectomy, chemo, and radiation. But it is also because I cannot . . . sit . . . still.

Is it any surprise, then, that hiking kills two seals with one shark: I get to see beautiful things, and I get to move, which turns down the volume on the longing that hounds me wherever I go. And hiking by the ocean . . . well, the ocean, like the night sky, allows me to see my life in perspective—small grain of sand up against The Great Unruly Mystery. The point of standing on a beach is not to explain or control—which I couldn’t do anyway—but to know my place as witness and let my spirit rend with awe.

My daughter and I began our eight kilometer hike toward Sardinia Bay on a small cliff, wending our way down toward the ocean. Sometimes the trail cut through low grass, sometimes the trail was the very beach itself, where walking through the sand was almost as challenging as churning through deep snow back at home. We’d been walking for a little over an hour, talking about a book I was working on when my daughter interrupted me to say, “Is that a whale bone?”

She pointed to a portion of beach on our left somewhat sheltered by jagged rocks jutting out of the water. My first inclination was to say no, it was a gray stone, but we both left the grassy path and stepped down onto the sandy shore to investigate.

The thing sat alone.

“Oh my God, you are right. It’s a vertebrae.”

Waves crashed, seagulls cried, or at least they must have, but I didn’t hear any of it, because on the beach beside my daughter, I was finally able to quiet myself, settle into the space where realization turns to wonder, and welcome the invitation to reverie, to spaciousness and a certain roundness of spirit.

Open and expectant, my daughter and I approached the whale bone.

“It’s huge.” In the Lost 40, my daughter had thrown her arms wide to wrap them around the pine trees. Now she spread her arms straight out like an eagle—the vertebrae reached beyond her fingertips.

We circled it, marveling at the marrow that had dried to the color and consistency of beef jerky. We knelt and pried seashells off it, filling our pockets.

Please don’t make me go into the confessional and admit that I then committed a sacrilege. With my thumbnail, I found a rough edge on the bone and snapped a piece off. It was no bigger than the half-moon of my fingernail, but as soon as I had done it, I felt as if I had stabbed a rusty knife into a sleeping god, all because I could. All because it’s a lie. I said I didn’t know they were pilgrimages until we were back in the car, but that isn’t true. I am always on a pilgrimage, always traveling, wandering, lost in a clutch of thorns, and trying to find any crumb to lead me out.

“I’m sorry. Forgive me,” I prayed to the bone. Yes, I am the kind of person who prays to a whale bone on a beach in front of her daughter. Don’t worry—the voices that hiss inside make me well aware that this is weird. They are the same voices that command me to let all of my old ways die. Be someone new. Be someone different. Someone normal who isn’t swimming in the crushing depths all the time.

Beside the pounding ocean, hush.

Make room for If you weren’t restless, you wouldn’t have come. Or stopped. You wouldn’t have put a shell and a flower on top of the bone, wouldn’t have prayed again and again. You would have walked on, oblivious. You would have missed the other parts of the whale: the giant necklace of its spine, the curve of its rib, the hunk of its flesh. You wouldn’t have been you: one who is willing to be torn apart by awe.

“Thanne longen folks to goon on pilgrimages.” Thus begins Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I had to learn the opening in Middle English for a class taught by Dr. L. back in college. He also made us memorize a Shakespearean sonnet of our choice. When he was dying of brain cancer, one of his nurses was an old student of his. As Dr. L. sat in the chair to get his chemo treatment—the same way I have sat in a chair and gotten mine as a nurse double-gloved herself to protect herself from the poison—this past student recited her sonnet to him.

I’m back at home now and I have a CT scan scheduled for next week to check a spot on my lung. I’m back at home now after seeing my child being hugged so hard by the kids she was tutoring in the township that she couldn’t breathe. I’m home after sitting in an open-air vehicle wondering if the huffing rhino was going to charge us or not. I’m home after going on another pilgrimage with my daughter, after which she said as we climbed into our car, “I wouldn’t have wanted to share that with anyone else in the world.”

On my windowsill sit two tiny red seashells that I gathered from the curve of a whalebone. In the space inside, a wild ocean they sing.