Parenthood: A Pilgrimage

Are we ever, truly, prepared for parenthood? Discover how, and why, David Hlavsa and his wife embarked on a 400 mile pilgrimage in order to build a richer life, with children.

marker along the Way of Saint James

The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, has been a pilgrimage site for more than 1,000 years. Today, the Way remains a popular spiritual, as well as tourist, destination.

Photo by gena fotograb/Fotolia

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David Hlavsa’s Walking Distance (Michigan State University Press, 2015) is a moving and disarmingly funny memoir about life and love. The following excerpt, taken from Chapter 1, chronicles one couple’s journey to parenthood and how they got there.

In the summer of the year 2000, Lisa and I walked the Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James, more than four hundred miles across the north of Spain from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. Shortly after our return, Lisa got pregnant. James was the only name we considered for a boy. In as much as anything can prepare you for a birth, I suppose walking the Camino prepared us for his. And in as much as anything can prepare anyone, it prepared us for his death as well.

Unlike Everyman’s decision to go on pilgrimage, ours was neither involuntary nor did it happen all at once. Its arrival in our lives was not particularly momentous. There was no vision, no visitation. Nobody fell off a donkey. One day, in the tenth year of our marriage, Lisa and I were baking on a beach in the Caribbean. White sand, palms, light breeze, turquoise water, eighty degrees. We had good jobs: I had recently received tenure as a theater professor; Lisa was bringing in good money as a yoga teacher. We had some savings and a small co-op apartment in a hip Seattle neighborhood. No more low-budget road trips, car camping, sleeping on college friends’ couches, standby flights; these days, we could afford a real grown-up vacation.

The beach was full of sand fleas, and I was starting to burn. I’m not really a beach kind of person, and I hate being a tourist—a visitor, isolated, surrounded by the vibrant life of a tropical island with no real way to be a part of it. Vacations and holidays have always been restless times for me. Something in me says: Why vacate? Why go on a retreat? I don’t want to retreat; I want to advance. Instead, there we were: beached.

Of course, vacation wasn’t the problem; the problem was me. It wasn’t just that I was bored; any time I wasn’t at work, I struggled with a combination of low-level anxiety and depression, a slight but perceptible dissociation from my domestic life, as if I had been given a mild sedative and could never quite emerge fully from its speedy, torpid blur.

At work, which, for a teacher, is infinitely expandable, I had classes to plan, students to cajole, committees to chair, resources to marshal, artists to collaborate with, deadlines, challenges. Add to these preoccupations the cycle of producing plays: each new cast a community forged in the attempt to make something fine, each rehearsal period a brief lifetime unto itself, and each closing night the end of a world. It’s not that I was always happy at work, but when you get in the habit of trying to fill the hole in your heart with professional achievements, if you’re any good at what you do, there’s always just enough of a kick to the workday to keep you coming back for more.

Lisa once said accusingly, “I think you like being at work a lot better than being at home.” I thought about trying to reassure her that it wasn’t so, but then I just nodded. She had me there.

During our courtship, I had wooed her with an old-fashioned fervor that, fortunately for me, she found charming—if sometimes a little overwhelming. Like a lot of men I know, I could be very good at the initial pursuit, but once I got the girl, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with her. However hard I tried to be a good husband, it seemed there was always a part of me disengaged from the action of marriage, the shared effort of making a life together. I was at home at work and a tourist in my home.

I rolled over on my towel and muttered something to Lisa about wishing our time off from work had more of a sense of purpose.

Sometimes a simple remark just unfolds and unfolds. At first it looks like any other wrinkled scrap of thought. But then, as you smooth it out, it expands impossibly, all out of proportion. You want to see it in full, so you start to push other things aside to accommodate it. At first the unfolding seems like a game, an absurd magic trick, but then it takes up the whole room, and you stare at what’s before you, stunned: you realize it’s a map of the territory ahead.

I trace my very existence back to a simple remark. My parents were in college, still in their teens; my father, a tall, gangly, quiet kid who liked to play basketball as long as no one took the game too seriously, and my mother, curvy, dark-haired, intense in her convictions, were midway through a conversation about something else when he turned to her and, so the story goes, blurted out, “So, do you want to get married or not?”

So, having arrived at this very comfortable place in our lives, where did Lisa and I want to go from here, and what would make the journey more purposeful? When we got home from the Caribbean, we started to reconsider not just our vacation plans, but our destinations in general. Marriage, like pregnancy, is both an either/or proposition and a work in progress. How married were we? We both felt we could be more married. My tolerance for intimacy, for instance: Lisa opined that it might be a good idea for me to make some improvements in that area. And I replied that such an improvement should probably be accompanied by an expansion of Lisa’s tolerance for, well, me—which, though it had markedly increased in recent years, was still, by my standards, far too limited.

Over the years, we had fought plenty, but clearly there were some battles we were avoiding. And we had decisions to make. Our childlessness, for example, was one indicator that our marriage could use some work—not the fact of childlessness itself, but our irresolution over it.

From the beginning, we had shifted back and forth about having a baby. On one of our first dates, we were sitting side by side on a park bench, and she said that she doubted she would ever want children. I understood that it was a casual remark—and I wasn’t sure I wanted children either—but I didn’t want to close off the option. So, rather than letting the remark pass, I told her that if she definitely didn’t want children, I wasn’t sure we ought to be seeing each other. Lisa looked a bit startled—after all, we barely knew each other—and then she moved a little closer to me on the bench. Sure I was a little goofy, but maybe I had potential.

By our mid-thirties, Lisa had changed her mind; she wanted a child, and soon. I didn’t think I was ready. For one thing, though I had limited experience with them, I wasn’t particularly keen on children. They seemed to like to climb on me, and I found that kind of flattering, but that didn’t mean I wanted one. Lisa didn’t push me. I pretended to be in the question for a while, but how do you make a decision like that? I could make a list of pluses and minuses, but who was I kidding? There was no way to make a rational determination. It didn’t feel right to just say no, so I just said yes.

I’d said it on Maui, two years before, on another beach vacation, as Lisa and I stood on the summit of Haleakalā, watching the sun rise from the ocean and set the volcanic moonscape below us on fire. I pictured myself with a child on my lap saying, “Junior, did I ever tell you about the moment you first became a gleam in your old man’s eye?”

Later, as we were hiking down the slope of the mountain, Lisa slipped and cut her shin on the rough volcanic rock. She still has a bit of a scar—it looked as if she’d taken a large cheese grater to her leg. Though she made it to the bottom of the trail okay, her sock and sneaker were soaked with blood, and all along the way she drew horrified stares from the other hikers we encountered.

I’m sure some people pass from the practice of contraception to the practice of conception easily, like a man stripping off his necktie on a hot Friday afternoon—Oh, thank God, I don’t have to wear that any more. I remember speculating that although having a child would undoubtedly disrupt our future sex life, we could now, for a limited time only, enjoy a stretch of pure liberation, sex whenever we wanted and no fooling with diaphragms or gels or condoms or all the other paraphernalia we’d seen as standard equipment in our reasonably responsible respective sexual histories.

But the sex that night was oddly tentative, giddy and terrifying, as if we’d been transported back to our teens. We fumbled around, the tension broken every now and then by one of us bursting out laughing and then saying something like, “Sorry, sorry. No really. Continue. As you were.” (We did eventually get our groove back, thanks for asking.)

After a couple of months of haphazard attempts, Lisa took on the new pregnancy project in earnest, charting her cycle, taking her temperature, and reading up on the best ways to increase our chances, including, as one article put it, making gravity work for you! One time, afterward, for good measure, my wife the yoga teacher got out of bed and, naked and giggling madly, did a few minutes in headstand.

“So what do you call that in Sanskrit?” I asked.

Every so often, Lisa would call me at work with the news: “I’m ovulating! Hurry home!” And I’d reply, “Yes ma’am, at your service.” Later that evening, I’d tell her that, in the middle of the afternoon faculty meeting, I’d considered leaping up and, before dashing from the room, intoning, “Please excuse me. With all due respect, I’ve got to go impregnate my wife now.”

In time, when we had failed to conceive by conventional means, we sought medical advice. It turned out that my sperm, though sufficiently numerous, included a disconcerting proportion of anomalies: benighted tadpoles swimming mightily in circles, microscopic push-me-pull-yous with two tails, and the just plain dead. Clearly, the problem was with me, but, as is often the case, it was Lisa who paid. Following the doctors’ regimen, each month I was provided with a plastic specimen cup, a pleasant enough little private room, and access to pornography. Lisa’s part was to receive regular, painful shots in the ass with fertility drugs, to lie on the doctor’s table for the monthly turkey-basting, and then, to turn inwards, exquisitely aware of every sign and tide of her body, until the next disappointment. Start over.

Like a lot of people in our part of the world, Lisa and I are unchurched (though I was raised Quaker). Spiritually eclectic, we’ve each practiced a number of different varieties of meditation and prayer. Praying comes naturally to Lisa—it’s just something she’s always done. It’s not a mystical experience, she tells me; she’s not hearing voices or seeing auras or what have you. She simply prays, as one might converse with a friend—if that friend happened to be infinitely loving and utterly unknowable. My experience is not so direct. It’s not that I’m devoid of religious feeling or belief, but when I try to pray in words—whether silently or aloud—I usually just feel self-conscious, as if I’m shouting into a toy telephone in the hope of getting a voice on the other end of the line.

But, most of the time, that doesn’t stop me from trying to connect. One New Year’s Eve, we sat in a hotel room in Portland and wrote invitations to a child to join us. I pictured a large, well-appointed room somewhere in limbo, babies of all sorts and colors, lounging on velvety pillows, coyly waiting for a sufficiently compelling summons to go and be born. Lisa’s invitation had a lot to do with how much we wanted to be loving parents. Mine was a list, in no particular order, of incentives to come to this world: cake, Otis Redding, falling in love, hummingbirds, home, Swiss army knives, those kinds of things.

After nearly three years of trying to conceive a child, I wanted to continue, but Lisa had had enough. We fought to an uneasy cease-fire, and then settled into a tacit agreement to leave it be. And there it sat in our apartment: The it we had left be. We hauled it with us to the Caribbean that winter where it sat glumly between us on the beach until we were ready to drag it on home. Though we certainly didn’t want to talk about it anymore, clearly trying to have a child had separated us in an important way, and whether we eventually became parents or not, we were looking for inspiration, for a joint enterprise to bring us back together.

And then, one Sunday afternoon, Lisa looked up from the travel section of the New York Times and asked me if I’d ever heard of the Camino de Santiago.

History of the Camino de Santiago

The Camino, the Way of Saint James, began in the ninth century when the bones of the apostle were discovered in northwestern Spain. The legend was that after the Crucifixion, James, the first of Christ’s followers, traveled to Spain for his ministry. When he returned to Judea and was eventually martyred there, his compatriots took his body back to Spain by boat and interred it in the Roman burial ground of Compostela.

Upon the miraculous rediscovery of the bones in 813 AD, people began to come to Spain in increasing numbers, reaching half a million—and by some estimates as many as two million—per year by the thirteenth century. The oldest of the established pathways, the Camino Francés, winds through the northern Pyrenees, passes through Pamplona and the Basque country to Burgos, across the high plains to León, and over two mountain ridges, the Montes de León and the Sierra de Ancares, to Galicia.

Pilgrimage was the forerunner of modern tourism; one of the first written tour guides, the Codex Calixtinus, comes from the early days of the Camino. Shrines, churches, inns, and whole towns sprang up along the way. Pilgrims—in Spanish, peregrinos—came on foot, on horseback, and by ship from all over the Christian world. They made the journey, which was both arduous and dangerous, interrupted their lives for months, because they believed in miracles, because they needed to do penance for their sins, because pilgrimage frees the soul from purgatory.

Then, if they survived, they turned around and walked, rode, sailed back home. And their lives were different. Their communities expected more of them, and they expected more from themselves. Some changed their names to reflect the fact that they had traveled the Way of Saint James. Perhaps for some it was just a status symbol, but for others the name change was no doubt meant to convey true transformation. In some important sense, they had never returned from the pilgrimage; they were still on the Camino.

We decided that this was the experience we wanted—something that would extend well beyond the journey itself—and so we found ourselves contemplating not just a long trip but the long run. On our return from Spain, what kind of life were we hoping to lead? And—there it was again—would that life include children or not?

Choosing to Make the Pilgrimage

About the time we were gingerly reopening this discussion, Lisa began giving private yoga lessons to Claire. A longtime student of Lisa’s, Claire had just lost both her children in the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261. Her daughters, Cori, age eight, and Blake, six, were flying home with their father and stepmother when the plane went down in the ocean off the coast of California killing all eighty-eight people on board. Claire and her ex-husband had a joint custody agreement; that week it was his turn to take the girls.

For many months after the crash, except for long walks, Claire rarely left her home, the walls plastered with the girls’ drawings, the shelves full of family photos and memorabilia. People came to take care of her as best they could. She did get out to the yoga studio, however, where each week Lisa would lead Claire, her mother, her sisters, and her partner Marj through a private session. Claire told her that, along with walking, yoga was one of the few things that helped her get through the day.

Most of Lisa’s students are high achievers—doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, activists—and Claire had been among them, a family physician with a thriving practice that she managed to schedule around caring for her daughters. Being a witness to such devastating grief effected a sea change in Lisa. She began to wonder: if losing a child can reduce such a life as Claire’s to pure aftermath, what must it be like to love a child?

So it was that, in our minds, the Camino became a way to prepare ourselves for parenthood. We would use the pilgrimage as a way to deepen our spiritual lives and strengthen our marriage. On the road, we would spend part of each day in silent meditation, paying attention to each step, breathing, and listening for what the Quakers call the still small voice within. And at the end of each day, we would talk: about all the things married people defer, withhold, make quiet bargains not to speak of. We would clean out the closets, rid ourselves of the inevitable accumulation of detritus between us: judgments, resentments, fears, desires, shames, stratagems. We would try to be both more truthful and kinder to one another.

All these renovations, we believed, would make us better potential parents, and we had the idea that, as our potential increased, so would the likelihood of our becoming actual parents. I wouldn’t say that our new notion of pilgrimage was quid pro quo—Okay, God: we walk, you hand over the baby. Nor did we believe that the pilgrimage was an atonement, that we were childless because of our past sins. But we did have the sense that just maybe, if we really prepared ourselves for the arrival of a child, a child might arrive. When we got back, we would make more room in our lives: we would build a better nest, move from our urban neighborhood, buy a house in a quiet residential area. And then, if we couldn’t grow a baby ourselves, we would go out and start looking for one.

Sure, it was ambitious, but then, Lisa and I are planners. As a theater professor, I’ve always got something simmering on the back burner of my mind: shows, classes, and—as I actually enjoy faculty politics—the occasional, if small, coup d’état. However, my planning extends only to the medium range, a year into the future at most. Lisa, by contrast, lays out detailed, long-term visions in a journal, which, judging by the number of volumes we have stored in our basement, she has kept since about the age of eighteen months. And then there are the files. Every month Lisa receives various magazines and rifles through them, scissors flashing; she stores the neatly clipped and annotated remains in folders whose organization is utterly mysterious to me. Everything she has achieved or procured in her life has its antecedents in the journals and clipping files. I suspect that if I were to browse through the files she put together before we met, I would eventually find an artist’s conception of my own face, with the handwritten caption: “Husband?”


Reprinted with permission from Walking Distance: Pilgrimage, Parenthood, Grief, and Home Repairs by David Hlavsa, published by Michigan State University Press, 2015.