Monday, January 26, 2015

Harold Fry's pilgrimage

Twice in my life I have taken long walks, once a distance of 10 miles, to help raise money for worthy causes. Even so I have never quite understood what walking or running long distances or devoting long periods of time to jumping rope, rocking in a rocking chair or whatever has to do with benefiting someone else.

This came to mind as I read Rachel Joyce's impressive novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. A retired 65-year-old Englishman, who still lives with his wife though it feels like they have been separated for years, gets a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a woman he once worked with at a brewery. She tells him she is dying from cancer in a hospice in Scotland, on the coast of the North Sea. He writes a quick note to her and sets off on foot to post his letter. Yet he keeps walking and walking, feeling in his heart that as long as he keeps walking, Queenie will keep living. And so, over three months, he walks the entire 637 miles to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The title of Joyce's book provides the first insight. Harold Fry's long walk is a "pilgrimage," suggesting he does it as much to help himself as to help Queenie. Certainly that 10-mile walk in support of my son's school benefited me, as well. For years I had a doctor who would always ask if I could walk home from his office, which was about 15 miles away. Each time I would mention that 10-mile walk, implying that if I could walk 10 miles, I could probably do 15. I always felt the hike got me off the hook somehow.

In the novel, Harold's pilgrimage helps him immensely, even though he is weak, frail and exhausted by the time he finishes. It clears his mind and cleans his conscience, making him feel that a quiet man who had been virtually invisible for so much of his life can still make a difference in the world. And the pilgrimage helps his marriage. Maureen, his wife, at first is shaken that her husband should set off on foot to cross Britain to see another woman. In the end she sees him as a hero, her hero.

As for Queenie, yes, she learns Harold is on his way, and she hangs on.

People could just donate to a good cause without anyone having to walk or run long distances. Harold Fry could have just gotten into a car and driven to Berwick-on-Tweed. Yet Rachel Joyce shows us that the effort that goes into something can be as important as the final result. Life is about the journey, not the destination.

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