Thursday, May 8, 2014

Retirement: Thoughts on The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The book called The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: A Novel by Rachel Joyce is such a tells the story of a retired man that relives the journey of his past as he becomes an unsuspecting and surprised pilgrim. This story takes a look at how the retirement journey can change not only our lives but our very being. While we take our past with us we can also grow out of it and become what we have want to be. But, as Harold Fry discovered, it is not an easy journey. It takes time and effort to get to a place where a person feels comfortable in their skin once again.

Harold has lived for 20 years with a life that is not happy or complete. His wife is very angry with him, his son never really connected with him and his job did not give him any satisfaction or joy. There was only one person that seemed to bring a sense of calm to him and she disappeared as quickly as she had arrived. Her name was Queenie. She was plain and quiet but solid. Harold had a great deal of respect for her courage.

Soon after Harold retired, he received a simple letter from Queenie letting him know that she was dying in hospice care on the far side of England. She just wanted to tell him goodbye. So Harold wrote a letter telling her he was sorry, placed a stamp on it and set out to mail it...and simply did not go home. He began a walk across England with no cell phone or wallet while wearing a pair of yachting shoes.

Without realizing what he was doing, he began a trek that changed his life. He started out out to mail a letter and kept going because a young girl at a gas station told him that if he believed enough, Queenie would not die. The girl knew because she had done that for her aunt. So he decided he would deliver the letter in person.

Harold not only needed to see Queenie...he also needed time and quiet and space to think his own thoughts.

He only found the peace he needed after he had faced all the demons that had haunted him for 20 years. The people from the past took on real form as he talked with people along the road and then as a group of people wanting to be pilgrims joined him. I think that each of those people symbolized someone from his past.

With him gone, his wife faced her own issues and came back from the dark place she had been living in for so many years.

Seeing Queenie one last time, as it turned out, was not what he needed. It may have been that it wasn't the destination after all. But then that is the rest of the story and you really do need to read this one.

As I reflected on the book after I finished reading, I could see how a lot of people might want to do what Harold did. Instead of facing their relationship issues or past mistakes they might just walk out the door and keep going. But I think that anyone that did that would face the same thing Harold did and find that they don't ever leave anything behind.

The retirement stage of our life leaves us with our naked being, no job to protect or validate us, a past that needs to be put in perspective and a blank slate to be filled with the rest of our life. The journey is not over. In fact, the pilgrimage is what it is all about. Even if there is no Queenie in our lives there might be a regret or a problem or even a relationship that needs to be tended too. The pilgrimage the retiree (or anyone for that matter) sets out on will be what it is because they have faced the past and can then move into the future.

This is of course a wonderful book.  It has won the acclaim that it deserves. Reading it is a journey in itself!

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  1. We read it for book club and the book was a good one for discussion. We are all at retirement or close to it.

  2. This seems an interesting read. Retirement creates different reactions among people because it signifies end and beginning. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. I read this on your recommendation, thank you! I didn't see the retirement angle as clearly, I felt more the striving for meaning, redemption and getting on from heartbreak. I track the books I read on a blog, if you're interested, I got tired of re-reading things I'd already read, another symptom of retirement!


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