Something special about this e-mail- Alison Donley and her daughter, Rachel, get a paragraph! Serendipity brought Andrew to their doorstep, and you can read about the encounter below.
The e-mail is posted below in its entirety, click "Read More" (bottom right of the post) to see it all.
Hello family, old friends, and new friends!
I'm writing to you from the beautiful home of Allison Barlow and Tom Hoen in Baltimore (well, I was when I started this letter, now I'm writing from the beautiful home of Jason and Nancy Ann Deparle in Chevy Chase), which means I've taken the leap and the listening walk has begun. The past week totally rocked me physically and it's been a gamut of raw emotion to go with it. Each day, it's as if I'm not only walking miles of road and through corridors of trees and down bristling strip malls, but also riding waves of exhilaration, frustration, purpose, sadness, mindfulness, mindlessness, and, inevitably, exhaustion. And in spite of it all or because of it all, I made it to Baltimore (Chevy Chase). It feels good, really good.
Here are a few thoughts and some brief rundowns of what's been going on day-to-day....
Which feels so strange. Most transitions in my life have been marked by significant physical distance, but with this, I'm literally a stone's throw away from my house. And it's uncanny, because I could so easily just turn back. But I can't, really, and I don't. Mom shouts at me to lift up my arms as I'm walking away, a triumphant gesture, and I do, and it's as if the movement releases whatever it was that was keeping me together and I start weeping, but I'm laughing, too, walking along. I have such a beautiful life, and I am so lucky, so blessed to be doing this.
The tracks were a comforting, holding presence. The rails themselves offered guidance, and they took me through backyards and fields and forests, places the roads can't go or don't, past stinking mushroom houses and steaming fertilizer plants. One foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other, wow, I'm actually doing this, why am I doing this again?
Just out of Kennett Square, I see four men on the tracks: my first encounter with people (if you don't count the guy who saw me in Kennett and asked "Headin' south?"). I'm a little nervous, surrendering to preconceptions about the type of people who hang out on train tracks. As I approach them, I see they're Mexican immigrants (one of them is Puerto Rican, I later find out). I stop and say hello, and they ask me what I'm doing. Keep in mind, I look ridiculous, leather traveler's hat, souped up 50 pound backpack, earth and US flags, a sign that says "Walking to Listen." I stand out. So I tell them. Immediately, one of the men says something quickly to the other in Spanish, and the guy starts rummaging through their plastic box of stuff and pulls out a bunch of apple juice boxes and an unopened package of cookies and urges me to take them, which I do. And then I sit down and we start chatting, great guys, and I play a song for them on the mandolin at which point Martin whips out a fifth of Nikolai vodka, takes a sip, and then offers me some when I strum the final chord of the song. We're talking in a fusion of my very broken Spanish and they're decent-but-still-broken Spanish when the rain comes. I put on my rainjacket, but they don't have anything and immediately they're soaked. "Come on, come on, we'll take you to our house for shelter!" I follow them through a field near the train tracks now soaked with water and soon we enter a small copse of woods. I can see a building, though, and its a strip mall, one I've been to many times before. And here I am now behind it in this camp, the home of these men, blue tarp lean-tos held up by string, wood palletes, and bicycles. I wait out the rain with Martin. Gabriel and Sergio are in the little room next door. Pedro disappeared before the rain came. Martin changes out of his wet clothes and sits on the bed next to me, his big belly protruding over his briefs. He offers me some clean, dry sweatpants to wear. I play the mandolin with the rain and out comes the Nikolai again. When the rain is finished, we step outside into the sunlight. Martin and Gabriel tell me to pick one of their hot peppers and try it and Martin slices up a cactus fruit for me, and the hot and sweet go well together. Just before I leave, Gabriel wishes me good luck, God bless, and sleep with a knife by your side, or even better, a pistola. As I'm walking out of the woods back to the tracks, all I can think is: holy shit.
Come 5:00 I've walked far enough, so I hop off the tracks to start knocking on doors for a patch of lawn to set up the tent. No answer at the first door, a mom with an infant answers the second and her husband's not home so it's a no go, so I head to the third house, and here's where it gets miraculous. The kind, caring, and wonderful woman (hey Alison!) that opens the door teaches yoga like my mom, and the two of them have been trying to meet each other for five years! "You're Therese Jornlin's son?" she says. And all I can think is: holy shit. Alison's daughter, Rachel, comes home, and the three of use share a surreal night of steaming pumpkin soup with whipped cream, wine by the fire, and resonant conversation past midnight. As I head off to bed, I can't help but feel provided for.
That was Day One. And here I am now, nine days later in DC. This first week has been incredible, difficult at times, no doubt, but incredible. I've found that amazing things happen when I throw myself out there, when I trust someone with a question or a story, when I put down my assumptions and fears for a moment and just knock on the door or flash a smile or ask a question. One of the most beautiful parts of this is that I'm making relationship and family as I go, deep, deep connections: Alison and Rachel in West Grove, Eddie and Martha in Rising Sun, Bob and Peggy in Bel Air, Allison and Tom and their two sweetheart kids in Baltimore, Woody in the city, Corey and Lynee in Columbia, Jason and Nancy Ann and their sons in Chevy Chase. I stumble into these peoples' lives at the end of the day hurting, feet furious with me, mind more than a little crazy (if I hit mile 20, I've noticed I'll start babbling to myself or singing nonsense), hungry and sore, and these people they care for me. We share presence, stories, food and drink, music, and I feel like I'm engaged with them in some of the most meaningful work anyone could do: seeing and listening to one another with honesty, respect, and trust. And in bringing honesty, respect, and trust to my interactions with people, I've been taken to places I could never have gone otherwise, even in just the past week: a sacred sweatlodge, beautiful homes of old friends and new friends, a drug rehabilitation center in southside Baltimore, a living room practice studio for a soul band on the west side, a karaoke bar. I'm incredulous at the arc of this walk so far, and tempted to feel scared that it can't possible go so beautifully as time goes on, but I want to let go of that fear and remain in the freefall of my leap, because I've been caught time and time again so far.
A quick note or two on walking: I'm noticing things I never would in a car (lots of squashed grasshoppers and snakes, a deer carcass crawling with maggots, farmhouses overgrown in vines and trees, birdsong). I'm struck, especially on the highways, at how insular and private we all are in our cars. When I came off the train tracks and onto Route 1, I felt overwhelmed with a sense of loneliness, which was ironic given I was surrounded by people there, when on the tracks I wasn't. So many people, yet we're all in our own Honda-Toyota-Ford-GMC worlds. There aren't many walkers out there, even in town centers, and so it's lonely to walk, especially thinking of all the potential that's zooming by at 50 miles an hour. But just when I'm on the verge of breaking down, I'm lifted, as in the case of Ron, a gas main replacement worker who saw me cresting a hill on the highway and offered me a can of root beer and an apple, a rest and a conversation, and then $7 to "get me up the rest of the hill." Wow. Life is beautiful.
Thank you all for the prayers and thoughts and support, and if I haven't been floating around in your consciousness, thanks for being you! Knowing that I do have so many friends and family rooting me on, though, is a powerful force of conviction and inspiration for me. It's how I keep putting one foot in front of the other. When my feet are throbbing and my back feel broken, I visualize you all walking beside me, behind me, straight-backed and smiling, and then it's no problem. And we all walk with each other like this, don't we? So, much gratitude.
I'm thinking of you all out here. I'll be in touch, and please do the same!