Walking Distance – Pilgrimage, Parenthood, Grief, and Home Repairs by David Hlavsa – Review

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In the summer of 2000, David Hlavsa and his wife Lisa Holtby embarked on a pilgrimage. After trying for three years to conceive a child and suffering through the monthly cycle of hope and disappointment, they decided to walk the Camino de Santiago, a joint enterprise—and an act of faith—they hoped would strengthen their marriage and prepare them for parenthood.

Though walking more than 400 miles across the north of Spain turned out to be more difficult than they had anticipated, after a series of misadventures, including a brief stay in a Spanish hospital, they arrived in Santiago. Shortly after their return to Seattle, Lisa became pregnant, and the hardships of the Camino were no comparison to what followed: the stillbirth of their first son and Lisa’s harrowing second pregnancy.

Walking Distance is a moving and disarmingly funny book, a good story with a happy ending—the safe arrival of David and Lisa’s second son, Benjamin. David and Lisa get more than they bargained for, but they also get exactly what they wanted: a child, a solid marriage, and a richer life.

DAVID HLAVSA heads the Theatre Arts Department at Saint Martin’s University, in Lacey, Washington, where he has been teaching acting, directing, playwriting and film studies since 1989. A recipient of the University’s Outstanding Teaching Award, he has served two terms as Faculty President.

He is the author of Walking Distance: Pilgrimage, Parenthood, Grief, and Home Repairs (Michigan State University Press, 2015) and An Actor Rehearses: What to Do When – and Why (Allworth Press, 2006). His article, “My First Son, A Pure Memory” appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times. His essay, “Two Sons, One Living” appears in They Were Still Born: Personal Stories About Stillbirth (ed., Janel Atlas, Rowman & Littlefield, 2010). Hlavsa’s plays, including Pack of Lies, I’m Your Man, and Long Run, have been produced in Seattle, Chicago and New York. As an arts writer for the Seattle Repertory Theatre, he published more than twenty articles and study guides on Shakespeare, Chekhov, Synge, Pirandello, Goldoni, Feydeau, David Mamet, August Wilson and others.

Hlavsa has a BA in English/Theatre from Princeton University and an MFA in Directing from the University of Washington. Productions directed at SMU include Uncle Vanya, A Little Night Music, The Dining Room, Old Times, Brilliant Traces, You Can Count on Me, Reaching Through the Frame, Everyman, Goodnight Desdemona Good Morning Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Day Room, The Illusion, Comings and Goings and The Memorandum. Hlavsa has also served as the University’s Director of Interdisciplinary Studies, developing and co-teaching courses on Political Theatre, Acting and Economics (“Dramanomics”), Saint Joan, Jane Austen on Film, Business Leadership, Acting for Teachers, and Jesus on Film and in the Gospels. At the University’s Spiritual Life Institute, he has taught workshops on Theatre as a Spiritual Path.

He lives in Seattle with his wife, Lisa Holtby, and their son Benjamin.

My Review – 

If I were looking for a book to read and came across Walking Distance, I do not think I would have given it a second look if I had been depending on the cover of the book to spark my interest. If I followed my normal habit – letting the cover draw me in – I would have missed a great story.

David Hlavsa takes the reader along on a walking journey, a pilgrimage. The author and his wife walked 400 miles across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. They had suffered loss and their hope was waning and this journey was a spiritual journey for both of them.

Guidebooks advise the modern peregrino to limit his possessions to no more than 10 percent of his body weight…After obsessing for some time over whether to bring a second pair of shoes, say, or a Spanish phrasebook, one day I caught myself actually contemplating boosting my gross weight in order to increase the net weight of my cargo. I was considering getting fat so that I could bring more stuff. (!)

David Hlavsa captured their journey in words, leaving nothing sacred. He opens up his heart and pours out his doubts and his struggle to find and connect to God.

When it comes to pain, like most men, I aspire to great bravery. However, true physical courage is just not my strong suit. The best I can manage is a temporary sham of stoicism, clamping the lid down on a simmering pot of anxious self-pity. If asked what the matter is, I will emit a wisp or two of dispirited complaining. But inside, again and again, I wail: Oh, the pain! What will become of me?  I become thin-skinned, quarrelsome, and daunted by the simplest tasks. I have put Lisa on notice that growing old with me is likely to be a challenge.

I personally loved the author’s sense of humor and tried to pick passages from the book that would showcase his humor and his struggles.

This is the time of blisters: we’ve had some before, but now we get them in abundance. They are fruitful and multiply: on toes, on heels, on the soles, on the tops of our feet. Clear blisters, blood blisters, blisters inside of blisters. Blisters under calluses, blisters under  toenails – I lose the nail on my little toe. This is not exceptional, just oridnary suffering, peregrino business as usual. Lisa, however, doesn’t just get the standard-issue peregrina blisters: at one point, almost the entire sole of her right foot is a blister.

I admire the journey that David and Lisa made. I’m not sure I would have been quite as brave or had the tenacity for such an undertaking. I probably would have said, “Let’s jump in the car and drive cross-country, stay in nice hotels, not sweat, and spend the time communing with each other while we look at the country side from inside the air conditioned vehicle.”

Walking Distance is a very good book and I feel somehow richer for having read it.

So here I am back at the old question of how to pray in words…Of course, I realize that part of my problem with praying is that I have no idea whether God exists. This issue notwithstanding, I decide to stick with it, but after a couple of hours of asking Whoever Might Be Listening to please, please fix this for me, I feel worse. It’s as if I’m in the back seat asking God every five minutes: Are we there yet? A therapist I know is fond of saying that whinning is just anger through a small hole. Realizing that I am indeed angry, I consider opening up the hole a bit, trying an angry prayer…But this trip isn’t God’s fault, we’re not doing this under duress. This is not the Bataan Death March; we’re here by choice.

We aren’t far from our no-tell motel before I start to wonder if maybe we should have stayed there. It’s brutally hot, and my feet are more than usually blistered. Trying to keep the pressure off the blisters alters my stride, slightly at first, but significantly: here come the salad forks. By the time we reach the river Bernesga (a real river at last) on the outskirts of Leon, I’m limping like something out of a horror movie. Eyes on the prize, zombie. Still more than a mile to go.

When I reach the Plaza de San Marcos, I stop to wait for Lisa to catch up. For a moment, we stare across the square at the great white stone facade of the Hotel San Marcos, a hundred yards across, ornately carved with religious and historical scenes. This is some place, folks; and we – as we near the entrance with our sweat-stained backpacks, our dangling socks, our weathered faces, and our chronic foot ailments – we are the Clampetts. Howdy.

By week eight, however, when she was at her sickest and witchiest, my attempts to project calm in the face of the impending storm only maddened Lisa further. From her perspective, which she shared with me rather forcefully, everything around her – not excepting her husband – was half-assed and unfinished. Inside, outside, nothing was pretty to look at. And there’s no good shopping in this hick neighborhood. We might as well be in, in…Nebraska. The baby needs furniture. And windows you can actually see out of. The baby wants orange juice. Fresh, from oranges, not from a plastic container. And go get me some meat, too. The baby wants meat. Is mama happy? No, she is not. And when mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy.

…I cut back on other commitments – Lisa has made it quite clear to me that “quality time” at home would not be enough; sometimes, there’s no substitute for quantity. Cracker pyramids and sweet nothings and evenings by the fire were all well and good, but if I really wanted domestic tranquility, I’d best get myself home, strap on the tool belt, pick up the pace, and renovate the hell out of something until it by God didn’t need renovating any more.

There are a number of quotes here, but all are parts of the journey our author calls life. It could be anyone’s life. Once again, I have to say that Walking Distance is a great book. I am giving it 5 stars.

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