A Skeptic's Pilgrimage

by Joan Weimer

Dog Ear Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1598581147.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 06/23/2006

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure

Joan Weimer's journey began with a heart-stopping airplane plunge, then took her to some of the most famous mystical sites of Europe—sacred labyrinths and shrines of the mysterious Black Madonna—and brought her back home again, to her everyday work and everyday life. These are the external dimensions, the physical map, of her pilgrimage. Inwardly, the journey is even more complex: a dramatic movement from the isolating alienation of Weimar's self-confessed skepticism through a radical questioning that, like the labyrinths she walks, takes her into a new understanding of her own profoundly spiritual self. It includes, as well, a clearer comprehension of her mother's dark and painful rejection that turns, in the end, into a paradoxical and powerful recognition of acceptance.

I first met Joan Weimer through her fine memoir, Back Talk, in which her story of her physical pain and disability (she undergoes spinal surgery) is interleaved with the story of Constance Fenimore Woolson, a nineteenth-century American expatriate who committed suicide in Venice. It is a richly imagined, novelistic memoir enriched by Weimer's scholarship and creatively enlivened by her refusal to be defined by that scholarship. Awestruck strikes some of the same notes and chords in a similar melodic structure, except that it is a two-part invention, since the author's husband, David, actively participates in her quest, sometimes encouraging, sometimes resisting her growing insights and awareness of herself. Fellow travelers, we learn, do not always take the same paths.

The immediacy and urgency of Weimer's journey is emphasized through her use of the present tense and her often poetically-charged language. The mausoleum of Galla Placidia, she writes, is a beautiful place,

...but it's not what I want to see right now. Never mind, we're going there anyway. We're swept up in a sluggish river of tourists, channeled between barriers, packed together so tightly it's impossible to go against the flow. We wash ashore at the mausoleum, where we find the tiny space so packed that we can see only a few inches of the mosaics over people's heads.
But it's not just that the language is powerfully metaphoric. The journey is, too, which is nowhere as clear as in the chapter on labyrinths, "Walking a Winding Path." As with any long journey (Weimer and her husband were traveling through several European countries), she often finds herself wishing for a more direct route, as she traces her laborious way to the center and back out again.
I watched him amble off, thinking about my own impulse to take the shortest distance between any two points. Not to jump out of life, but to head straight for what I want. But that's exactly what a labyrinth won't let you do. The center is just one point on the path...In and out, journey and arrival, it's all one path...
Some readers may find the poetic imagery of this carefully crafted memoir occasionally overwhelming, and be distracted by the nagging question: But did it really happen this way? For myself, I would put the question differently. How much of this journey actually happened in physical space and time, and how much of it happened in the mind, in the creative and recreative memory, in the process of writing? Reflection, as Weimer muses over and over, gives us the power to frame and reframe our experience, so that the story of any journey is as much about storying as it is about journeying. Personally, I found myself wishing that Weimer had turned her memoir into a novel, so that concerns about truth could be redirected from real experience to creative imagination.

That said, I read with a deep pleasure to the end and closed the book feeling that I have taken the journey with her as she walks the labyrinths and searches for the Black Madonna through the shadow figure of her own mother. It is a compelling and worthwhile journey, a rewarding search. It is an inspiring memoir.

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