Upon turning 60 recently, I came to the realization that other than family, work and community service, I was living for my next pilgrimage. I’ve been taking pilgrimages since high school. I’m not talking about a religious journey, but more of a spiritual adventure that involves a sense of place, narrative, history and a replenishing connection to life energy.
It’s funny, but having built most of my work life writing about, and deciphering, money issues (eight of my 17 books), my purpose in writing them was never about directly accumulating wealth. They were about enabling pilgrimages, or at least buying the time to do them.
I strongly encourage you to save money for pilgrimages, too.
A different definition of pilgrimages
You’re probably thinking I’m referring to a hajj, Lourdes, Rome, Jerusalem or even Santiago de Compostela. At first, I did, too.
When I started going on pilgrimages, my evolving sense of them was spiritual. I designed an independent study course in high school to study the great Western and Eastern philosophers, reading everyone from Lao Tze to Meister Eckhart. I holed up in a nearby Catholic seminary library to undertake my journey of the mind.
Over time, though, I have hewed to this definition of pilgrimage from the Oxford English Dictionary: “A journey to a place of significant interest and literary life viewed as a journey.”
I embraced that definition for my first trip to Dublin in 1975, when I was a high school senior on a band trip. Ireland was still a pretty poor country then. To experience the country and city fully, my sojourn involved reading James Joyce’s “Dubliners” and “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” while I was there. I wanted to get a sense of the spirit of Joyce in his native land.
As I graduated from college with a psychology degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago and became a journalist, I couldn’t wait for my next pilgrimage. Since I commuted to college and paid my own way except for a small state scholarship, I was able to save money for travel.
Communing with literary spirits
I planned a trip that went up one side of England all the way to Inverness in Scotland and down the other side through Wales. I wanted to see every cathedral and commune with literary spirits from Scott to Wordsworth.
In the Lake District, I got off the train, walked down the road and found a gentle spot alongside an ancient stone church and a gurgling brook. I pitched my tent and spent the night, feeling the presence of the great poets.
Having visited Edinburgh Castle, Stonehenge, Westminster Abbey and Exeter Cathedral (Nazi pilots refused to bomb this exquisite church), I arrived in the ultimate English pilgrimage locale: Canterbury Cathedral. Feeling Chaucer and the martyred presence of St. Thomas a Becket, I wept deeply.
Although I was making almost no money in my early days as a general assignment and business/labor reporter in Southeast Chicago, I continued to save money for my pilgrimages. I had to see Amsterdam, Rome, Paris, Vienna and most of Western Europe. Those trips included Freud’s apartment in Vienna, Notre Dame Cathedral and Piazza San Marco in Venice, where I dined on eel and adored Titian.
Vertigo on a pyramid
My brother and I took a near-disastrous bachelor’s trip to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, where we discovered that we had some comical vertigo on the top of the Chichen Itza pyramid (we had to slide down on our butts).
Just before my bachelorhood was over — I met the love of my life and married my Kathleen Rose when I turned 30 — I had a few more pilgrimages left in me. Every city in America beckoned: San Francisco with its labyrinth at Grace Cathedral; New York City with John Lennon’s “Imagine” mosaic; the Southwest with the Grand Canyon and lost pueblo cities; New Orleans with its pastiche of voodoo, jazz and Cajun delights.
Even my book writing became immersed in pilgrimages. To discover why the economist John Maynard Keynes became such a great investor (see my “Keynes’s Way to Wealth”), Kathleen urged me to go to the library at King’s College in Cambridge, where I pored through dusty, leather-bound portfolio books.
The archive room in the college was a shrine to the Bloomsbury Group, so I could conveniently commune with the spirits of Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and my hero T.S. Eliot. Of course, at Cambridge you have a variety of spirits over the centuries to commune with: Everyone from Newton to Francis Crick and James Watson, who boldly crowed in the town’s Eagle Pub after they divined the structure of DNA: “We’ve discovered the secret of life!” (they also serve a stunning fish and chips).
My next odyssey
Having completed my latest pilgrimage — a dozen-year exploration of the life and work of the inventor Nikola Tesla in my book Lightning Strikes — I’m ready for my next odyssey. (Various places like the Hotel New Yorker and lower Manhattan served as important sacred sites in the history of technology).
For now, though, I need to venture back to the South Side of Chicago to finish a journey I began 40 years ago: telling the story of some steelworkers and starting to fathom the future of labor in an age of explosive automation. Having my reporting from that period cited in David Garrow’s best-selling “Rising Star,” the new biography on Barack Obama, has spurred me to revisit that journey.
Other sojourns loom as well. I still have to wet my feet in the Ganges, touch the Western Wall and see the Northern Lights up close, which is tops on my wife’s bucket list.
If anything, it’s time for a pilgrimage of pure illumination. The world is a troubled place — always has been. That’s why we need to find the sacred in communities, culture and rituals, but most of all, ourselves.