Linking Past and Present - Christina Carlson

Linking Past and Present – Christina Carlson

Tuesday I attended my first class of a study tour of medieval Spain, which focuses on the Camino de Santiago. It has become clear to me that this will indeed be a journey, not just through space but through time, a going back to go ahead. The course is being run by Prof Richard Gyug at Fordham University, where I earned my PhD. He has been doing this for a decade or more and I have wanted to do it with him for some time, but the scheduling was never right. However, when I found out that he is retiring this year, I recognized that it was my last opportunity to do it with him. I e-mailed him to get his thoughts on the possibility of my accompanying him, and he graciously invited me to join the group; I felt like the Chaucerian narrator at the beginning of the Canterbury Tales “I was of hir felawshipe anon.” (GP 32)

Of course, this is not a pilgrimage to Canterbury, England but one to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, and we are not beginning at a London tavern but in a classroom, FMH 322 to be exact. There is no Knight, no Miller, no creepy Pardoner (thankfully); rather a group of roughly a dozen students, almost all female, almost all Caucasian (as seems to be the trend in study abroad generally), plus a PhD student and two professors. And me. I find myself, unintentionally but perhaps not surprisingly, a bit like the Chaucerian narrator, in the sense that I am a liminal figure in the group. At this point in my life I too am a professor of medieval studies, one who has traveled with students to the pilgrimage centers of Rome and the Isle of Iona. This is in part my reason for wanting to go along, as I would like to offer a Camino course at Iona and I need to learn how it’s done. But this of course also makes me a student. It is not lost on me that it has been 20 years since I took Prof Gyug’s medieval history class, in spring 1997. The other students coming on the Camino were not yet, or just, born. As I watched the grad student offer her overview of medieval architecture (a similar overview to one I give my own students when we travel to the Cloisters, or Iona or Rome) it occurred to me that I taught my first class as a grad student in that same building, perhaps that same classroom, or one identical to it. And so I find myself (like Chaucer’s narrator) identifying with each of my fellow pilgrims on some level, and yet different, separate, from them all (and now, like him, recording the experience for you, my audience).

This difference was thrown into full relief when we all had to share the bravest thing we’ve ever done. For many of the students, just coming to Fordham, to the Bronx, was their answer (how long ago my own move seems—I came to the borough 21 years ago. It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere, almost half my life). Prof Gyug admitted that volunteering to chair Fordham’s committee on core revision was his (and having just seen that process unfold here at Iona, I believe it!). Mine? Having a C-section, which was terrifying in its own right (giant needle in the back? Check. Being conscious while people are cutting you open? Check.), but also marked the beginning of motherhood, a daunting and enduring journey all its own. It was the obvious, immediate answer for me, and yet, as I looked around the room, I became acutely aware that I was the only mother in the group. I had my daughter after I had hit all my academic/professional milestones (PhD, job, tenure), so I tend to see her as separate from that process. And yet, she comes with me to campus, to the Cloisters, to the Isle of Iona, to Rome. And there she was again, creating distance between me and my fellow pilgrims, or maybe bridging it—I’m not quite sure which, maybe both.

The Camino is not just an event—it’s a process. For me, it’s multiple processes. As a professor, I’m thinking about logistics: how does the class work? How would I need to adapt it for Iona? What is the budget? What are the risk management issues? As a student, I am trying to learn. Although I suspect I know a good deal of the general information we will cover (the course is intended for undergrads), I am by no means an expert in medieval Spain and I am excited about filling in this gap in my own knowledge base, and also perhaps excavating six lost years of Spanish classes buried somewhere in my memory. Of course, I am also a pilgrim. My interest in medieval studies grew out of a desire to understand my own Catholic upbringing, and when I read or visit the texts and places of medieval Christendom, it is never with complete intellectual detachment, but rather with a sense of connection, of continuity. Our next class meeting is Tuesday, Feb 28-Mardi Gras, or Carnival. The course will span the entirety of Lent and the Easter Triduum; we will be in Spain for Pentecost. It is a time of spiritual rigor and renewal. And of course there is the physical aspect of the pilgrimage—we will be walking, 10+ miles a day, for two weeks. This is, perhaps, the most challenging aspect of the Camino (which I know from my lost Spanish simply means “walk”), the one that will require the most preparation from me. So how to prepare? Like any physical endeavor, it requires a training regimen. This is where being a professor, a student and a mother gets tricky—where do I find the time to practice being a pilgrim? And where can I walk the necessary distance in a place that is safe for me training on my own when I do find the time, as it is likely that I won’t be able to make all the group practice walks b/c of family obligations.

I was mulling over this question when inspiration struck. As Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz observed (and I’m paraphrasing), sometimes you need to travel to discover what is in your own backyard. Or, since I (still) live in the Bronx and don’t have a backyard, in the park across the street. I live at the corner of Van Cortlandt Park and Broadway, at the end of the #1 subway line. I looked it up—Broadway is 13 miles through Manhattan, another two here in the Bronx. That’s about the distance we need to be able to cover each day of the pilgrimage. And so I’ve decided to start with what I know and practice by walking the length of Broadway. From a practical standpoint, it’s perfect—it is literally right outside my door. It is paved, busy, safer then trekking the Putnam Trail on my own. And I would never be more than a few blocks from a subway station if I needed to get home. But I also love the idea of being a tourist in my own city. I have probably at some point or other traversed most of the length of Broadway, but I’ve never done it intentionally, or comprehensively. I expect to take lots of photos on the Camino, but why not start with the Great White Way—I’ve heard rumors that it’s a travel destination as well. But apart from being safe and convenient and interesting, there is also a personal aspect to it as well. I now live at one end of Broadway, the northern terminus of the #1 Subway. But there was a time, growing up in Staten Island, when South Ferry, the southern terminus, was the beginning. A time in grad school when I would visit my dad at his office at 17 Battery Place, a short walk from the start of Broadway, and let him take me to lunch or dinner. And then 9/11 happened. A week after I began working at Iona. I have not really been to the southern tip of Manhattan since, beyond driving under and past it, with one notable exception—I traveled from Iona to the SI ferry via public transit to meet my dad and go with him to his oncologist on SI during Heritage Week 2009. I was 4 ½ months pregnant. We found out he had a cancer that could not be cured, a cancer that may well have been caused by the toxic fallout of the Twin Towers.

Childhood, motherhood, academia, all converged and collapsed in that moment. Since then, my daughter has entered the world, my dad departed it. And I find myself staring at Broadway and seeing in it an opportunity to link my own past and present with a ribbon of asphalt, to draw it all together by experiencing the length as a whole rather than discrete parts. And all this in the service of preparing for the Camino, which also has me linking past and present in a different way, against the backdrop of the liturgical calendar, which medievalists will tell you is both linear and cyclical (it is quite possible I picked that up in Prof Gyug’s class in 1997). It all seems right and fitting.

So this week I start walking. I saw one of the Van Cortlandt Park hawks flying up to a tree with her breakfast, all shaggy with her warm winter feathers—I haven’t seen her since October, assumed she had migrated. But there she was. I watched her as she surveyed her domain from her perch in Van Cortlandt’s Tail, the little greenspace next to my building, just south of the park proper, on the corner of Broadway. I used to watch the hawks at Fordham, nesting high on the façade of Collins Hall. I just taught the book H is for Hawk, about an academic who loses her father. I took it as a good sign.


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