One morning when I walked in my neighborhood, I made a serendipitous discovery; a Little Free Library had just been installed. Inside the birdhouse for books, I spotted a title that caught my eye—The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Months later when our Edinburgh-bound train passed Berwick-upon-Tweed, I remembered how it had been the right book at the right time.
In the novel by Rachel Joyce, Harold receives a letter from a coworker from twenty years prior, Queenie Hennessy who’s in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, England. The letter and a chance encounter that follows, serve as catalysts for Harold to get up from his retirement recliner and set out on a quest. He decides he’s going to walk the 600 miles from his home in southern England to see Queenie in the northeastern corner. He tells her to hold on, don’t die, he’s on the way.
On Harold’s journey, he learns from the people in his path. He reviews his life and works through losses and regrets. The letter triggered him to take action and do something he’d never done before.
While the book is a novel, I saw many things that rang true of going on a pilgrimage—whether to a faraway place or within your community.
Receiving the letter was the event that started a reaction in Harold. He stepped forward and moved beyond his complacency. When he’s suddenly invigorated by his mission he leaves everything behind. The catalysts for me to step out of my complacency were being diagnosed with cancer and being fired from a job. I wanted to live with more intention, seeking what my heart desired instead of waiting for things to magically happen.
Along the way, Harold learns to pay attention to the small things, to be present and see for the first time. He wasn’t able to see what was in front of him at his home until he took off on the journey. I’ve found that going away by myself, forces me to take notice—as a means of safety as well as to savor my new experiences.
When Harold arrives at the hospice, finally reaching Queenie, things aren’t as he expected. In the process of taking the journey, he’d changed internally and externally, and returned home to a different place. While the pilgrimage didn’t lead to what he’d hoped, he received benefits that he hadn’t anticipated. I’ve found that with most of my journeys —that while my strong imagination makes me think I have a good idea what I’ll encounter, it’s always different. There are new “ah-has” that I never would have thought I’d receive on the trip.
When my husband and I rode the train from London to Edinburgh, we passed Berwick-upon-Tweed. I imagined Harold walking through the English countryside to arrive at that place. Part of me wanted to get off the train and search for Queenie’s hospice. Through the window, I got a glimpse of the waters of the North Sea and remembered that Harold struggled at the waterfront before going to see Queenie.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was the right book at the right time, reinforcing in fiction what I’ve found to be true. Pilgrimage changes your life. I was glad I could join Harold on his walk across England and anticipate what he’d find while I wondered what I would discover on my journey.
What about you?
Have you experienced a serendipitous discovery in a familiar place?
How did that treasure impact your life?
How have your eyes been opened from that experience?