I’ve been asked by the founder of the Internations Women’s Empowerment Seminars in Florence to deliver a talk about my solo pilgrimage from Canterbury to the Vatican. I’m so honored, and a bit bashful – to be honest, I didn’t think I’d make it two days along the trail, let alone finish the pilgrimage.
This is so important to me for so many reasons. When I first arrived in Florence over two years ago, it was the Internations community – a “Community for expatriates and global minds” – who opened its arms and made me feel welcome as an exile, newly deported from England and completely clueless. I’ve also been amazed by and thankful for the female friendships I’ve developed here in Florence.
This talk is for women, to foster solidarity and inspiration, and also for expats – all of us who have left one home for another, and look for family in new lands. I raise a glass of prosecco to my sisters here who have made my story possible.
I’m overjoyed by the interest and buzz my pilgrimage has generated. From complete strangers contacting me online and offering to buy me a drink , to a professor interviewing me for a study, to being asked to speak for Internations. It’s such a delight, my head is spinning.
I’m a bit nervous about presenting my story in front of people, though, because it’s so vulnerable and hopeless at first. There’s a happy ending, thank goodness. But before I can get to the good stuff, I’ll need to open myself wide and expose all of my demons, fears, insecurities and weaknesses to a room full of people who probably want to hear the story of a bad-ass wild woman.
I’ll feel a little like an impostor.
I mean, my story begins with a panic attack and seizures in the middle of France, fleeing from the pilgrim trail on a train through the alps in the middle of the night in a desperate attempt to find an Italian farmacia that would refill my anxiety medication, followed by a few days in a Milan hostel, hiding away in my bunk bed psyching myself up to go through with the rest of my journey.
I can imagine the look of disappointment on the audience’s faces when I recount the harrowing beginning of my story.
I paid for this?
I came here for inspiration, dammit, not a sob story!
Oh, wah, wah, wah!
My wonderful husband Sean was so worried about me.
Just a few years ago, he’d have to bring me on reconnaissance missions before my Oxford field trips in London just so I could feel comfortable going anywhere outside of our home. My daughters once tempted me out of the house with a scavenger hunt. Although I was often 100% functional and sometimes extremely successful putting on a guise of normality (what’s that?) I was sometimes paralyzed with agoraphobia.
So going from not being able to leave my bed for months on end to walking across Europe?
Yeah, Sean had every right to be terrified. And my future audience has every right to roll their eyes. At first. I was rolling my eyes at me too!
I guess that’s the gist of it – any good story needs a good character arc – a heroine who does a shitload of growing. I stretched myself to within an inch of my life. I will never again be the person I was just a couple of months ago.
A couple of months ago, in early September 2017, Sean tried coaxing me back to Paris, where we had said our goodbyes after leaving Canterbury and crossing the Channel. He said I could rent an airbnb along the Seine for a month and finish my memoir in peace in a bohemian neighborhood indulging in French bread, cheese, wine. Why on earth did I want to go on pilgrimage? I didn’t have anything to prove to anybody, he said.
But I did. I had to prove something to myself.
Even so, I very nearly stayed in Paris.
It was so hard to let Sean go this time, even though we’ve lived apart for two years now since getting married in Copenhagen. This separation was different. I wasn’t going back to my cozy expat life in Florence, I was heading into the unknown as a homeless person. I truly had no home, and all I had was in my backpack.
Although I was often alone in my last marriage for six months at a time while my ex went to war, or was called away on long TDY’s, I always had my girls there to keep me company and to nurture and be nurtured by, even when our extended family was an ocean away.
Being on pilgrimage meant that for the first time in my life, I would be truly alone; without my children, my friends, my pets, my home. And without a safe person.
Sean has been my “safe person” these past five years, since we got together. If you have severe anxiety or know anyone who does, you know how crucial it is to create a safe environment – a bubble – to have a trusted person to help you navigate the world and to serve as your buffer or gatekeeper.
Going on pilgrimage alone meant I was saying goodbye to my safe person. Popping the bubble and letting the world rush in.
Neither of us thought I’d make it even two days, let alone a month. Thankfully he didn’t tell me that until I had already made it to the Vatican after 33 days of walking (walking, train, walking, train, etc.). At that point we could laugh about it.
In fact, my pilgrimage was so fraught with fear that I followed Sean from Reims backward to Paris, where he was going to catch a flight back to England. So I went backward on my pilgrimage, just so I wouldn’t have to be alone.
Not a very wild woman beginning!
The important thing is, I became that bad-ass woman.
Eventually. At least for a while.
I’ll probably expand and contract quite a lot, moving in and out of that fearless state of mind. I’ll be frightened sometimes, incapacitated once or twice, ecstatic and invincible quite a lot, and be a wild bad-ass fearless motherfucker on occasion.
I don’t really feel comfortable saying “I am this,” or “This is definitely me.” Because it’s limiting, and after all, the most important and sacred thing we can do for ourselves is to give ourselves permission. Permission to be this or that, or nothing, or everything, or a great messy mix of many things at once.
I give myself permission to be completely and utterly non-bad-ass when I need to be. I even give myself heartfelt permission to be wah-wah-wah.
Fear will cycle around and around. The great thing is, no matter where I find myself , I know I’ll be okay. I proved that to myself on my pilgrimage. Without a doubt, I can make it on my own. With no plan, no money, no training, no safe person and no home or safety net to run back to.
Me, riddled with fears and disabilities.
I think the Renaissance artists had it right; they believed that genius was like the muse – it visits you when you’re receptive to it. No one person is a genius. We all have the capacity to enter that state of mind.
Same with badassery and bravery.
I entered that state of mind because I had to. I wanted to. I craved that freedom and power with all of my soul.
And my soul did good work. Hard work.
It crawled on its knees the whole way, while I walked.
And we made it.
Giving this talk will be another sort of pilgrimage – only this time I’ll be revisiting those medieval trails, pathways, and cobblestone alleys surrounded by my Florence sisters.
They’ll peer into my soul for an hour and enrich it with their own.