Pilgrimage

When Kristen confesses her sins to her parish priest, she is given what seems to be an impossibly harsh sentence. She must walk barefoot to St. Olav’s shrine, and she must bring her infant son Nikulaus along. 

As Kristen shuffles along the path, her son bound to her chest, an unexpected peace fills the story. Sure it’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. She’s tired, he’s hungry. They falter a bit. But her forward momentum feels like a breath of fresh air after the claustrophobic guilt, regret, and fear that have marked her early days at Husaby.

The mood of this pilgrimage called to mind early days with my own infant son, in the summer of 2020. We walked a lot. We had little else to do. I was struggling with some pretty bad insomnia, with the isolation of the early pandemic, struggling to breastfeed. Just…struggling. But we still walked, all the time.

Before Lee was born, several friends loaned me those long, scarf-style baby wraps, but I was always too afraid about tying the knots, afraid that Lee would just slip out somehow. So, I ended up ordering a carrier that looked more like a padded harness, that flipped up in one motion, and buckled around my chest. I came to love that thing, sometimes spending nearly half the day with Lee snuggled down close to me. When I see that carrier now, hanging in the back of our coat closet, I still feel a quick wash of relief, as if we’re just about to step back out for some fresh air, before I remember that my tiny bean of a baby has turned into a truly gigantic two-year-old.

Here is a poem about one of our many early walks around the neighborhood:  

We could always walk, even
on the worst days. That morning
the sun came up and I still
hadn’t slept and you crowed
your sweet little crow to ask
what we would do with ourselves, so I strapped
you to my chest, put on my mask,
took Advil, poured coffee in the thermos, 
trudged up the hill, to watch the sun wash 
across that vacant lot full of native plants slated to be cut down
to build another mansion, and past that, 
to the park with the view of the city.

We moved in a bleary cloud of wonder. All night
I’d lay there, expectant, trusting 
that night would end.

So many things I’d thought to be
impossible were coming true. 

Everything closed to us, 
even the air contagious. But your soft 
breath against my chest, your fuzzy head,
your grumbling a bit
then nodding off again, so easily, 
the comfort of you relaxed against me,
the two of our bodies so recently
one body. I walked on, and with each step
the sky grew brighter.

Christy Lee Barnes is a poet and educator from Los Angeles who now lives in Seattle with her husband and toddler son. Her publications include Prairie Schooner, Spillway, Cream City Review, The Seattle Times, McSweeney’s, Tin House’s “Broadside Thirty,” and other journals.

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