“What would the world be, once bereft of wet and wildness?
Let them be left,
O let them be left,
Wildness and wet;
Long life the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins
HOW FAR we must travel sometimes before we can turn and peer into our own hearts!
If you’re setting out on such a journey, there are few better destinations in the world than Scotland — the home of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and other great writers. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins only lived in Glasgow for part of his life, but the Scottish love of literature led Scotland to adopt him as well.
During out recent pilgrimage to Iona Abbey on a tiny island just off the Atlantic coast of Scotland, a pilgrim named Karen found out that I am the Editor of ReadTheSpirit. She sat down with me over lunch, where she explained that she is a writer herself and eventually she hopes to teach writing to other women.
“I’d like to be able to help women write about their spiritual lives, but I don’t really know where to start. What do you think I should tell people about trying to write their own spiritual stories?” she asked. “For so many people, it’s a terrible challenge. We can sit and not have any idea where to start.”
“Well,” I said, “start very simply. The three most urgent spiritual questions in most of our lives are these: Why should I climb out of bed in the morning? How will I make it through another stressful day? And, at the end of the day, what did I do that truly mattered?”
“Really?” she said and pulled out a small notebook, writing down the three questions.
Of course, these questions also were voiced by Tolstoy and they are echoes of the ancient questions: Why are we here? How shall we live? And, what is the impact of good and evil?
There’s tangible evidence of this wisdom literally leaping from the pavement and gray stone walls in Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, which runs from the city’s storm-lashed castle down to Holyrood Palace. The Hopkins passage is etched in the outer wall of Scotland’s parliament building.
Farther up the long, centuries-old street toward the castle is a paving stone with the words of writer Neil Gunn: “Knowledge is high in the head — but the salmon of wisdom swims deep.”
These large paving stones lead to a remarkable close (or alleyway) that is home to the three-story Writers’ Museum, a non-profit tribute to Burns, Scott and Stevenson.
I spent a morning in these lovingly designed chambers, where the principle of the three questions leaps from nearly every exhibit on the writers’ lives.
In the rooms devoted to Burns, I won’t soon forget four black iron links from a surveyor’s chain preserved from the tool kit Burns himself used throughout much of his life as a surveyor for Scotland’s tax service. Despite his celebrity, which now circles the world, the key to understanding Burns’ prose is that he was a man of lowly birth who had to labor all his life as a farmer and tax-surveyor to support his family.
As a poet, he is best understood as “the Heaven-Taught Ploughman,” the exhibit explains. His childhood in a poor, rural family and his aspirations for a more democratic world fueled his life’s work in verse.
In Scotland, Sir Walter Scott is credited with placing an appealing, romantic version of Scotland’s culture onto a global stage. In some Scottish cultural centers and in an immense temple-like monument to Scott in Edinburgh, he is lavishly praised for saving his beloved homeland from sinking into third-world obscurity.
But, much like Burns, Scott began with simple bits of turf. He scoured the stuff of everyday life to create his many novels. He read diaries, letters, travelogues, personal histories. Now, his novels like “Ivanhoe” and “Rob Roy” seem exotic and antique — but, in his day, Scott was knitting together the very stones, byways and villages of his native land.
It was in the final third of the Writer’s Museum that I found the most persuasive proof that our spiritual longings lie in the simplest moments of everyday life — and, nevertheless, we often find ourselves traveling far from home in our search to truly appreciate the stuff of daily life.
These were the galleries devoted to Stevenson, author of “Treasure Island” and a host of other books that ignited the imaginations of generations of girls and boys, setting them dreaming of adventures in distant lands.
Stevenson devoted himself to seeing, tasting and touching daily life in many parts of the world. He circled the Earth even visiting the South Pacific islands. Often, he was traveling in search of pursuits as simple as fly fishing. A handful of his fish hooks and a favorite bamboo rod in a case are some of the closest connections I’ve ever felt to Stevenson’s world.
In a final case stands a pair of his high-topped leather boots, lined up and down with dozens of well-worn eyes and hooks. He wore them hard. Bending down, I found that what at first appeared to be a shadow actually was a deep scuff in the right toe. In fact, the leather actually is torn and the top layer is laid back.
What happened on that day? What was the adventure? What lines of prose that we enjoy today resulted from the impact of that toe?
Stevenson wrote, much as I am arguing here: “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.”
It may take a pilgrimage half-way around the world to jolt our hearts and minds awake. The “labour” of touching, tasting and smelling everyday life far from home may be the fuel required. But the spiritual destination is always the same: connecting the everyday stuff of our world with the heart deep inside us all.
In this way, we discover not only our own stories, but that we share a larger story, as well. Or, as another stone in the Writer’s Museum courtyard puts it, in the words of Naomi Mitchison: “Go back far enough and all humankind are cousins.”
CARE TO READ MORE?
Visit The Web Site: Curiously, given the output of the trio honored in the Writers’ Museum, there’s only a small Web page devoted to the center. If you’re curious about Edinburgh, though, it’s worth clicking on the link to download an overview of various museums on the so-called Royal Mile.
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(Published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)