Jennifer Lash, otherwise known as Jini Fiennes, the mother of seven children including the actors Ralph and Joseph, was diagnosed with breast cancer in the late 1980s. She died December 1993 at the age of 55. Whilst in remission, she designed her own pilgrim route through France ending up at Spain’s sacred Santiago de Compostella. She wrote a book about this journey, her only non-fiction book; ‘On Pilgrimage’.
Initially I was somewhat disappointed because there was such little mention of her disease. She doesn’t make the connections between her illness and the journey clear and it’s difficult to establish what the pilgrimage meant to her in the light of this. However, reading between the lines of her descriptions of the places that she visits, her observations of the people around her and her growing personal insight, it is possible to grasp the essence of what she was seeking; a truth of sorts.
Jini was not religious although she was brought up catholic. This meant that although she was knowledgeable about catholic ritual, the places that she visited churned up mixed feelings about her lack of belief. She felt a bit of a fraud when mixing with other pilgrims, “all these varied boats of human vivid adventure bobbing about on this sea of certainty. Faith. Everyone assumed I was bobbing about on the sea with them.” The conviction that others held with regard to their Christianity highlighted her sense of emptiness. She notes; “the awful realisation of this derelict no man’s land between belief and non-belief.” She also found that “being with people whose lifestyle is a demonstration of their certainty and focus can be unnerving if you are unsure of yourself.”
This resonated with me. I am not religious but do waver between non-belief and the sense of something greater than we can comprehend. But I cannot shift the sense that this is all a random universe and find it difficult to understand how cancer can be viewed as positive in any way; that my life could be in any way better because of it. I also find it unnerving when people are able to be upbeat and positive about their outcomes, not allowing negative thoughts to foster doubt or uncertainty. Their energy and determination amazes me. I’m unable to be so sure. I fear that the chemotherapy offered may make my life worse. I do not have faith in the treatment.
But it is difficult to live with this uncertainty and doubt. I have to work at living whatever life I have left even with an incurable stage IV cancer hanging over me. Jeni seems to have come to some firmer ground here:
“Considering death had meant considering life. I knew that now, I had made a firm decision towards life, not for length of time, that wasn’t the point, but to find fresh ways of liberating its quality. Instinctively that seemed to mean going back to base. Considering roots; the depths of things.” The journey seemed to provide her with the understanding for this insight; “it had seemed clear, that I had for some time, been voting myself out of life. I had been diving for the dark.” I must say that it might be the same for me; that I have dived toward the dark. But then, on better days I don’t feel such despair and want to find a way of getting as much as I can from what I have left.
I was much more interested in her philosophical thoughts than the places that she visited. However, my interest was piqued by the pilgrim stop in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer. This site is associated with Saint Giles who is particularly associated with the relief of mental disorders and cancer. Could he help me I wonder?
Jini Fiennes spends a lot of time writing about the places that she visited in extreme detail and this may have been due to the publisher’s demands, but for me, and I think for the author too, the inner journey was the jewel in the crown. “Perhaps the interior way is the one that counts in the end. No journey can be more dark and difficult, unexpected and hazardous than that. There is always somewhere this deep, searching sense, that you are in some respects, unlike anyone else and in this, there is a very particular purpose.” What wonderful prose. I have always been a reflective thinker and now faced with my mortality my thinking has become problematic. Once it becomes quiet, especially when it is time to sleep the void becomes apparent and the inner journey can vary between being fraught with fear and panic and an acceptance of what will be. Jini was aware of these moments; “In everyday emptiness and ordinary waiting, you are suddenly back simply with yourself, which feels to be nothing more than a pool; some empty space that fills and empties, is calm or angry, dark or light, grasping and clawing, or quiet, almost stable and content.”
Finally; “How easily resolve and purpose diminish into the soft trash of self absorption; the stupid illusion that one’s minimal hardship has some kind of relevance. How you decide to look at a situation will dictate how you feel towards it. You are still in command if you choose. There is always choice.”
So Jeni Fiennes does have a truth of sorts. Can I take any comfort from this? Is it really possible to look at my situation differently?