I went missing last month, for I was in hospital, recovering from a major operation. I thought “How cool it would be to write a potted history of heart operations for History Girls” but when it came to writing this, I found that my world is still too small and I’m still dealing with the emotional ramifications of the operations. You’re not, therefore, getting a medical post today, however interesting such a post would be. There are family reasons why such a post would be particularly interesting – maybe one day. When one’s father is a footnote’s footnote in the history of heart surgery, it’s worth exploring.
The thing with a personal event as large as this is it shrinks one’s universe and my universe is only just now beginning to grow again. In a few weeks’ time I’ll be doing normal work and next to no time (objectively) I’ll have more energy than I’ve had for years. But to reach this stage of health, I have to take small and cautious steps. I have to walk a slow trail in a small universe.
It struck me that there is a rather important equivalent to what’s happening emotionally to me right now. In the Middle Ages, 95% of people didn’t go more than 20 miles away from their homes. Some travelled a great deal, but more did not. When they travelled, their worlds grew. When they came home again, their worlds shrank in a very similar emotional way to mine. There was one particular type of travel that most Christians were likely to have undertaken, either to somewhere close to home or to somewhere excitingly distant.
The big voyage for many people was a pilgrimage. Those who could might chose the ultimate destination: Jersualem. Santiago de Compostella, St David’s in Wales, Rome were all more achievable. All of these pilgrimages were undertaken on foot (except when water had to be crossed, obviously) and some modern pilgrims follow these routes. A friend of mine did the last few hundred kilometres of the Santiago route just recently. The pilgrimage is different these days, but it still helps people grow their worlds and discover a new world.
This piece is not, however, about the nature of pilgrimages. There are so many books and studies and pictorial essays about going on pilgrimage. Growing one’s world and exploring new places is something we tend to talk about. We talk less about what happens when our worlds get smaller.
There is a moment in a pilgrimage that matches that moment in my life when everything seemed confined and small. That shrinking of one’s life is what happens when one returns home. A good Christian soul has done their big journey to, say, Canterbury , and made offerings and achieved virtue for the afterlife and has taken the long trudge home. As they walk, they know the route for they have already travelled in the opposite direction. What was astonishing and new on the way out is familiar on the way back. It might feel smaller or might feel longer. It might be more tiring because instead of having a marvellous and strange and beautiful destination to look forward to, there is the cycle of work. Or it might be reassuring to return to everyday life and its demands.
How one undertakes that return journey depends on one’s personality. It’s documented far less than the outgoing journeys, for it’s less important in a religious sense. Less important in so many ways. One builds up to the pilgrim dictation and then the return walk is merely a gap between that event and everyday life. It’s dangerous. It’s no easier than the route out. But there are no religious rewards at the end, no special once-in-a-lifetime emotional joy. So how pleasant the journey home is depends on how the traveller loves the voyage itself and how much he or she wants to return to the safety and predictability of home.
This is just as important a voyage. Finding the small world again is critical to our happiness if we can’t live in the big world. Returning home has to be done in the right way. Otherwise we are, as Frodo and Bilbo were, unhappy and restless and fidgety and listening for sounds and people that have no part in our lives. As I turn to Tolkien for my example I wonder what type of stories pilgrims tell as they return home. Not at all the same kind of story s they tell on their way to their place of pilgrimage. And I wonder if they slot themselves into the agricultural year while they’re still on that journey, anticipating the tasks ahead and mentally preparing themselves so that they fit into their old lives.
We don’t have as many stories telling us how to safely return to smaller existences. Our fiction would rather tell us how to meet the challenges of the larger world. Yet we all have return journeys at some stage in our lives. Or we find ourselves living smaller lives while we handle health and personal problems. This is where history is stronger than fiction. There are far more novels about lives that grow than about lives that shrink. What our fiction doesn’t tell us, our history can. I suspect that my recent experiences will persuade me to write about coming home and discovering the small life, one day. And I suspect that my future will involve some research into return journeys, to fuel this story.