East of Eden

“And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden…”

eden

My people are people of the soil.

My grandpa made his living as a dairy farmer. And now, when he sits on his porch in the evening, he looks out over the fields where he pastured his cattle, and where he made hay for their winter sustenance. In the middle of those fields sits the timber frame house where, one hundred Aprils ago, he was born.

grandpa

Over the past forty-nine years, my parents have planted gardens, fruit trees, and flowers; dug a pond and built some barns; raised kids, dogs, farm cats, and beef cattle; snow sledded, cut firewood, and canned a million quarts of green beans on the wild twenty acre plot of Eden they bought when I was just a baby.

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My brother and his bride have reared their babies and built a beautiful life, and now a business, on the very same farm where my dad was once a boy.

Deep roots.

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Mike and I have been somewhat more transient. Gypsies. In June we moved into our sixth house in twenty-nine years of marriage. And yet–something of this need to plant things, to intimately know my portion of earth, has pursued me.

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So I lovingly lift out my mama’s irises and haul them with me, wondering if any of the soil of Appalachia still clings to their rhizomes. I sift cleome and larkspur seeds into the new ground and bless my grandmothers who loved them so and who, though immensely practical, could not live without beauty.

lilies

I study the vicissitudes of sun and shade. I tuck columbine under the dogwoods and border the walk with lavender. I make a home for Samra’s calla lilies and Lorri’s Lenten roses. I stand perfectly still when the hummingbird comes to drink while I am pulling weeds. I watch Kenzie charm the butterflies.

butterfly

And slowly
thread by thread
I stitch myself into this new soil.

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p.s. The barn pictured above has been transformed into a gorgeous event space. If you live in the East Tennessee area and are planning a wedding, reunion, or corporate event, check out River Ridge Barn HERE.

Vincible: A Riff on Aging…

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

When the cardiologist’s office offered me an appointment on the same day I was seeing the dentist, I figured this was efficient. I would already be out — and showered (never a given).

I did not realize that these two were engaged in a secret conspiracy to steal my invincibility.

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Despite the fact that it has been five years since my last visit to the dentist, (Don’t judge, I have trauma issues.) I am praised for my hygiene. No cavities. Hardly any plaque.

“There is, however, the matter of these silver fillings. While they will last forever, they are much less flexible than your teeth and with the passage of time have begun to cause cracks. If left untreated, you will begin to have breakage. We need to replace them.”

“Wait, what?! Let me get this straight. Because I am old, I am going to need to come in once a year for the next four years to have silver fillings dug out of two teeth at a time, and those same two teeth fitted with crowns?!”

“Yep. That’s pretty much it.”

“Awesome.”

I walk out into the stifling heat feeling seriously deflated. And old. I think back to my check-up a couple of years ago where the answer to every question I asked was “Well, at a certain age…” I contemplate taking up day drinking. Then I remember the cardiologist and think better of it…

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I had my first episode of tachycardia when I was a teenager. My mom and I were sitting in the living room having a pleasant conversation when my heart abruptly went from beating 70 beats a minute to more like 180. As if someone had flipped a switch. It lasted about five minutes, then was over. It was weird, but I didn’t think a lot of it. I have continued to have these episodes randomly, and infrequently, ever since.

The impact on my life has been minimal for the most part. Only twice has it been problematic. The first time was when I was pregnant. A woman’s heart rate naturally accelerates because of pregnancy. In me, this translated to more frequent episodes that sometimes lasted an hour. I finally saw a doctor who diagnosed the problem and taught me ways to help restore my rhythm.

The other time it was a problem was when I had an issue with my thyroid. But that only lasted about three months. In the ten years since, I have been back to the old pattern of infrequent and short.

Until the morning of July 6th.

That morning, Kenz and I were on our way to explore the playhouses at Cheekwood when I had an episode while driving. It was so severe that I had to pull over til it stopped. Over the course of the morning, I had four more episodes, the last of which persisted almost two hours until, at my doctor’s direction, I went to the emergency room and had it corrected forcibly. (Mike had joined us by then and was driving, lest you fret.)

Because there was no obvious explanation for this sudden craziness, my doctor wanted me to see a cardiologist.

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Dr. Estrada is calm and laid back, and I think to myself that this is going to go well. He sketches an illustration of the heart and its valves and shows me how the several types of tachycardia work, including the one he believes I have. It is not as dangerous as some of the others which is good.

“However, with age, these random episodes like you had a couple of weeks ago are likely to become more frequent, and possibly more severe. At that point they can cause damage to the heart and you may find yourself in the emergency room more often. We don’t have to fix it now if you want to wait and see how it goes. But it is probably just a matter of time.”

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When friends and family have asked about, and even challenged, what they perceive as an overly rigorous commitment to eating healthy and to exercise, I have explained it like this: There are a lot of things about our health we can’t control. Mike and I both have strong family histories of diabetes and heart disease, for example. It seems to me that we have a responsibility to be wise about the things we can control.

That is what I have said.

But apparently, what I actually believed was this: If I do all the right things, I will be invincible. The ravages of age will have no authority over me.

I was wrong about that.

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Wise men and women in the Church have always urged us to be very aware of our mortality. It is a potent reminder to be fully present in the moment. For this reason, it has been common practice in many monasteries to keep the bones of those who have gone before on display. As I understand it, this awareness should be a voluntary practice. Failing that, I suppose some of us must have it thrust upon us.

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And so, I am working to come to terms with the fact that I am vincible. Yes, that is a word. I looked it up. I spent yesterday morning in the dentist chair getting thirty year old fillings ground out of two molars and am now sporting fine, fashionable new crowns. And while I still believe that we have a responsibility to steward well the bodies we have been given, I am being disabused of the illusion that this guarantees a life free of physical adversity.

There is a price to be paid for the wisdom that hopefully comes with age. All that learning takes a toll on the body. And maybe the toll itself has a wisdom in it.

I’ll let you know.

In her eyes…

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In her eyes, he is brave and strong. He rises early and goes off to work. He builds things and brings the electricity. He is smart and can do anything. When it’s time for him to come home, the mama scrubs the children and combs their hair and makes sure dinner is warm and ready, and this tells her that he is important. He feeds the cattle and looks after the calves, and when the pond freezes in winter, he chops a hole through the ice so they will have water to drink.

In her eyes, he is music. And church. He sings in the car and the field. And he plays piano and guitar, and occasionally a little harmonica. He shines his shoes every Sunday morning, then sits with his Bible across his lap and prepares to be with God. At church, he holds a hymnal in his hand and stands in front of the choir and they follow him. He is the closest thing she knows to a celebrity. He has to stay late sometimes for deacon meetings, and even though she does not know what a deacon is, it sounds weighty.

In her eyes, he doesn’t understand. He can’t see that she has gotten older and needs to test her wings. He is reluctant to let her grow up, to let her go all the places, all the time. She doesn’t understand. Yet.

In her eyes, he is no longer infallible. And yet, she sees wisdom there that she was too young to see before. As she brings her own babies into the world and watches them grow, more and more becomes clear. And she watches him with them; as he takes them onto his lap to drive the great John Deere tractor, as he pulls an apple off the tree or berries from the vine and piles them into their eager hands, as he drives across the state to be there for birthdays and graduations and plays.

In her eyes, he is aging well. He is learning to rest; something that has always been a challenge for him, as for her. He is learning to make accommodation. When standing too long in the garden or field makes his legs hurt, he recruits the four-wheeler for part of the work. He uses a grabber to pick up fallen apples, and a dolly to roll the heavy five gallon pails to the cider press. Still, he is productive. Still, he travels and feeds his curiosity. Still, he is needed.

His is a good and valuable life,

in her eyes.

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Happy Father’s day, daddy! I love you. Always.

Far Above Rubies

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When I was a little girl, I used to pick peonies from my mother’s own garden and give them to her for Mother’s Day. The irony of this completely escaped me at the time.

However, Proverbs 31 says to “let he own works praise her.” So, as it turns out, I am once again choosing to give my mother a gift that she has already given. I have taken some liberties with this familiar passage concerning the virtuous woman to give you a little glimpse of how my dear mother has lived it out before us.

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10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.

11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. She helpeth him clear the land and fashioneth a home for their young family. She stretcheth every dollar and selleth encyclopedias to help make ends meet.

12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. She careth for him in sickness and speaketh well of him, and always chooseth to see his best self.

13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. She goeth to the fabric store with her daughter who is growing too tall too soon and selecteth fabrics and trims for a new Easter frock that will be long enough and, for a moment, will make her feel prettier than she is.

14 She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar; from Darnell’s, and Goldston’s, and occasionally from the day old bread store. And from wild blackberry bushes and the muscadines that grow out in the woods.

15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens. She assembleth her famous meatloaf the day before and putteth it in the fridge to bake early the next morning. She cooketh cornbread and potatoes and sweet corn, wrappeth them in towels, and placeth them in the “hot cooler” to keep them warm for homecoming dinners.

16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard…and lettuce and onions, and acres of green beans, and tomatoes and cucumbers, and a yard full of beautiful flowers.

17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms…mostly by wielding a hoe and shovel, and carrying five gallon buckets full of beans from the garden, and wrestling the huge, scary pressure cooker.

18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night…because she might need to get up with a sick child. She might need to rub Save the Baby on her chest and warm a towel over the stove and wrap it around her. She might need to clean up vomit, administer crackers and ginger ale, then sing that little one back to sleep.

19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff. She picketh up the firewood as her husband cutteth it and tosseth it into the back of the truck to insure that their family will be warm. She driveth the pick-up through the hay field to help her husband and children collect winter sustenance for the cattle.

20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy. She taketh them food and visiteth them when they are sick or sorrowing.

21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet. And because the freezer is full of corn and apples and berries, and the shelves are stocked with jars of green beans, sauerkraut, tomato juice, and assorted jellies.

22 She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple. She quilteth and seweth and teacheth her daughter, and granddaughter, to do the same.

23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land. He ith a lucky fellow. 🙂

24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant. She bravely goeth to college once she hath all her children in school. She getteth her teaching degree and poureth herself out for classrooms full of lucky students.

25 Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come…even when things are very hard. When she receiveth the cancer diagnosis, when she loseth a precious grandson much too early, when she careth for her beautiful mother in the difficult last days.

26 She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness. She teacheth her children how to give a proper handshake and the importance of having a plan when you go on a date because unplanned time getteth one into trouble. She readeth them stories and showeth them, by her example, how to esteem others.

27 She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. And when, on the day of her fiftieth wedding anniversary, her son and daughter-in-law presenteth her with her tenth grandbaby, she still hath the energy to play with this new little one and invite her to sleepeth over.

28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her…though not nearly so much as she deserveth. Sometimes, to be honest, they taketh her for granted. And still, she loveth them.

29 Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all. The longer I liveth, the more I knoweth this to be true.

30 Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.

31 Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.

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Nothing I can say could possibly exceed all that you have said to us with your life. I am grateful for you. Happiest of Mother’s Days, Mama! I love you.

The Halftime Report…

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As of today, I have breathed upon the earth for 50 years. Given that this birthday comes just five days short of my grandpa’s 100th, I am choosing to see this as roughly halfway. 🙂

For someone with my disposition, it is impossible to arrive at such an auspicious waymark without a fair amount of reflection and rumination. You might expect me to share with you some of the wisdom I have acquired over low these many years. And while I do pray that I am wiser than once I was, mostly I find myself overwhelmed with a profound sense of gratitude for the beautiful adventure that has been my life, thus far. So much more than I could ever have thought to ask for…

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior…for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and Holy is His Name. ~Luke 1:46,49

For planting my roots in Appalachia…
For lightnin bugs and cold swimmin holes
and the Christmas trees we dragged from the woods
Bare feet in warm soil, scent of freshly turned earth
Wobbly-legged calves still glistening and new
For tender lettuce and onions in hot bacon grease
Wild muscadines eaten right off the vine,
I thank you

For a mama who read stories to me in that voice
that will always be my favorite
Who wakened in me a love for the piano and then
showed me how to make the magic
Who sewed my clothes and permed my hair
and dried a million tears,
I thank you

For a daddy who worked two jobs to make sure we had enough
and brought treats home in his lunchbox
Who taught me to be curious
and to work hard
and to sing
and to never stop learning,
I thank you

For my brothers and cousins
For painting with poke berries
and traipsing through wild places
For all the bicycle rides
across the honeysuckle bridge
through the woods
to the store on the highway
And for the rides home
eating candy necklaces
from our sweaty necks,
I thank you

For the church that smelled of cedar
and teaberry gum
tent revivals on summer nights
hymns and Hallelujahs sailing out into the dark
For foot washins and singins
and dinner on the ground
and all the people
and the way I first learned to love You there,
I thank you

For every teacher
every mentor
who saw something in me
that I could not see
and ruthlessly drew it out,
I thank you

For that adorable 22 year old boy
who scurried into my life on a Sunday morning
and stole my heart
and upset all my plans
and became God’s provision for me
Who has stood with me
in cathedrals and canyons
and emergency rooms
Who meant it when he said better OR worse
and has loved me more than I deserve,
I thank you

For a warm, sweet bundle of joy
who exploded all boundaries of love
when she made me a mommy
and who continues to teach me about love
daily
with her life,
I thank you

For the first boy child
grabbing life by the horns from the get go
For music and hikes and food
and long, deep talks into the night,
I thank you

For the baby boy
who is taller than us all
For the way he makes life a celebration
For his courage and curiosity
his talent and his zeal,
I thank you

For the wee one
For the way I am meeting the world
all over again
through her
For the way she teaches me to wake
each morning
eager and expectant,
I thank you

For all the beauty…
For the delicious agony of words
and the excruciating ecstasy of music
For the grandeur of mountains and vastness of the sea
For lavender, and butterflies, and red tailed hawks
For cardinals in winter and the first blossoms of spring
For the wildness of summer storms
and the silence of snow
For glaciers and rain forests
and the stark loveliness of the desert
For the extraordinary places all over the world
where it has been my privilege to stand,
I thank you

For found friends in far flung places
who have knit themselves into my heart
And for friends nearby
who love relentlessly
who see what could be
and make it so
who have made my life immeasurably rich,
I thank you

For faith
that has traveled long and endured much
and just when I least expected it
blossomed into something so rich and wide
that I will never come to the end of it
For all that is mystical and sacred
For the gift of Your Presence,
I thank you.

 

*And for you, dear reader, wherever you may be, for visiting these pages from time to time and sharing your life with me. Thank you.

To Wear Forgiveness…

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The triumph of sin, the main sign of its rule over the world is division, opposition , separation, hatred. Therefore, the first break through this fortress of sin is forgiveness.

~Alexander Schmemann

Slanting rays of late afternoon sunlight fall on the solea as the priest bows before the first deacon and says these words, “Forgive me, a sinner.” The deacon replies, “God forgives, and I forgive.” The deacon bows before the priest and says the same. They repeat this ritual with the second deacon, and the third. Then, one by one, we add ourselves to a line that eventually snakes around the whole church, bowing to one another, “Forgive me…” til each person in the temple has bowed before the other, asking for, and receiving forgiveness.

There are tears. And hugs. Some of us barely know one another, others have complicated histories. We do not take time to enumerate the many ways we might have hurt one another. God knows. But by our words and the humbling of ourselves, we say we would like it to be other. That we want to be made right.

With this, we begin our Lenten effort.

And because, in her ancient wisdom, the Church understands that we need lots of practice, she gives us the whole of this week to contemplate repentance and forgiveness. The services are filled with a great many prostrations, mingled with reminders of my propensity to seek my own way. But this is not punitive. This is liberation. I speak to my friend Jack one night after praying the penitential Canon of St. Andrew and ask him if he is tired after chanting so many long services this week. “Not at all. I love this service! It’s invigorating.”

Invigorating? A service whose primary focus is repentance?

In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate the soul from the body. The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is to be restored…Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul.

~Alexander Schmemann

I have discoloured Thine image and broken Thy commandment. All my beauty is destroyed and my lamp is quenched by the passions, O Saviour. But take pity on me, as David sings, and ‘restore to me Thy joy’.

~The Lenten Triodian, Canon of St. Andrew

It just so happens that a couple of days before Lent began, I had an encounter with a dark cloud from my past. A reminder of a difficult season in which I made choices I am not proud of. And I allowed that cloud to rain all over me and put me in a terrible funk.

Perhaps this is why I need this week so much. I need to physically stand inside forgiveness. I need to look into the eyes of another who will say to me, “You are forgiven. By God, and by me.” I need to know hunger in my belly. I need the opportunity to touch my face to the floor, not as a grovelling worm, but as one who recognizes my vulnerability. I need to wear forgiveness in my body so that the next time accusation visits, it finds no harbor in me.

It is only when we have lost all love of ourselves for our own sakes that our past sins cease to give us any cause for suffering or for the anguish of shame. For the saints, when they remember their sins, do not remember the sins but the mercy of God, and therefore even past evil is turned by them into a present cause of joy and serves to glorify God.

~Thomas Merton

May it be so.

Forgive me.

*A parenthetical word on dates: The Orthodox and western dates for Pascha (Easter) frequently differ, usually by just a bit, but occasionally (as this year) by more than a month. You can read about why that occurs HERE and HERE. Hence, as our western brothers and sisters are ramping up for Palm Sunday, we have only just begun the Lenten season.

 

Ripened Love

love

Give me a ripened love
full of recollection…

love tender and fragile in
the wild, impatient spring when
romance was new and
each day a discovery

love that has borne
the heat of summer defending
its yield against storm
invader
drought
sending roots deep
to drink the earth

love that has endured the
measured violence of pruning
and known the consolation
of the Gardener

Give me a scarred love
bent by wind, whose branches
tell a story long in the making
fruit distilled
to a warm dark sweetness

ready for the pressing
and aging
still to come

and the final surrender
and the drinking up

~sm

for my darling who has loved me long

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The Glass Menagerie

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The wall of windows wears permanent rain streaks, like scars. It careens into a corner where it collides with a second wall, solider, dominated by a lone portrait: A young man in a uniform. He gazes out over the worn apartment like some benevolent Christ. But something in his eyes suggests he is not to be relied on.

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When Laura enters the room, her movements are distinctly deliberate. And slow. It takes a minute before I notice the wrappings around one leg. The subtle limp. She is crippled. (Her family’s word, not mine.) More crippling than the leg itself is her excruciating shyness. It is the reason she has been expelled from business school, a fact which she can not bear to tell her mother. All the love which she might have bestowed upon a boy, or some babies, is instead poured into her collection of delicate glass animals. Their fragility she understands, better than  most.

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We meet Tom on the fire escape. It is appropriate. Between worlds. Not quite in, not quite out. He is trapped by responsibility, by the drudgery of working a job he hates, so as to provide for his mother and sister, whom he loves. But his soul is hungry. In snatches of time, he writes. He goes to the movies. He drinks. He goes out on the fire escape to smoke. All to find a moment’s relief from the stifling reality that is his life. He dreams of flight.

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Their mother is always bustling. Always scheming, scolding, or prodding in an attempt to secure a good life for her children. Her only diversions are the stories. Stories of her glory days when there were so many suitors vying for her attention, and the world was more cultured and polite, and the future was a bright sky full of promise. These stories drip with regret.

Theirs is a tenuous existence, fraught with perils both real and imagined.

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Enter Jim O’Connor. Tom has reluctantly dragged him home from work at his mother’s bidding. It has become clear to Mrs. Wingfield that Laura’s only hope is to make a good marriage, and as she will not go out to where the boys are, the boy must come to her. A great many preparations are made to show the apartment, and Laura, to their best advantage.

After a horrifying start, the evening actually goes much better than expected. To a point. But heartache has worn such deep tracks that–like the streaks across the windows–they are not easily scrubbed out…

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Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie has become a time-honored classic because it enters into difficult places with surprising clarity and honesty. Complex and layered characters ache to scavenge some bits of light from the bleak world that has been handed them.

Studio Tenn has rendered this weighty story artistically and sympathetically. From the set design which pulls you right into their close, beleaguered space to the spellbinding performances of the actors, it is impossible to watch without truly sensing the deep tragedy. And which of us does not have our own experience with tragedy? And isn’t it important, now and then, to have our hearts expanded by entering into the suffering of another?

The show plays again this weekend from Thursday through Sunday. I highly encourage you to see it. Find tickets HERE.

*All photographs in the post copyright Anthony Matula.

 

A Pilgrim Tale: epilogue

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It is a strange thing to come home. While yet on the journey, you cannot at all realize how strange it will be.

~Selma Lagerlof

Mike and I take the bus to Finisterre. It is the first time I have ridden in a motorized vehicle in five weeks. It feels strange. We pass a lemon tree, and I realize I can’t smell it. A woman works in her garden, but there is no scritch scratch of the hoe. When we first glimpse the sea, I don’t smell the salt, or feel the ocean breeze, or hear the birds. Everything is at a remove. Like I am watching the world pass by on television.

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Long before the discovery of the “new world”, Celts and Romans called this westernmost town of Galicia Finisterre because they believed the world ended here. They named the coastline el Costa da Morte, Coast of Death, because so many ships sailed from here, never to return. Finisterre was a place of pilgrimage even before Santiago as ancient peoples came here to see the place where every day the sun died.

It is not uncommon for Santiago pilgrims to continue to Finisterre and/or Muxia. We do not have time to walk it, so we have chosen to ride here for a couple of recovery days before flying home. Jan and David, on the other hand, began the walk this morning, and we made our most difficult goodbye yet, waving to them from the window til we could not see them any longer.

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The Hotel Langosteira, feels like a little slice of heaven. Bright, light-filled rooms decorated in white and blue with whimsical touches of colored glass, mosaic, and reclaimed wood. And our balcony overlooks the sea. All for just 40 euros/night. Oh yeah, and we have a bath that we do not have to share with anyone! I take LONG, HOT showers just because I can. 🙂

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On our second day, we walk out to Cape Finisterre. Here we see the Faro Lighthouse, a cross, a bronze boot, and several burn sights where pilgrims have incinerated various items they do not plan to take home. Mike and I seat ourselves on a rock and are looking out over the sea when I sense someone approaching us from behind. Suddenly a familiar voice says, “It’s really pretty, huh?” Jorge! We knew they were heading this way sometime today, but figured the odds of our running into one another were low. But what does camino magic care about odds?

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We follow him round the hill to find Steph and Kathy, both of whom ceremonially toss their boots into the sea. Or thereabouts. 😉 Jorge launches a pair on behalf of Catherine who has already begun her homeward journey. We take one more crazy group photo and give one last round of hugs. Then, Mike and I watch them walk up the hill. I can’t look away until the last of them has vanished into the sky. And I know this pain of leaving is part of the price of having known and loved such amazing people. It is a price worth paying.

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Mike and I carefully make our way down to a large rock near the foaming surface where we can feel the spray against our face. Here we sit for a very long time without saying anything, just letting all of this–the excruciating beauty, the accumulated fatigue, the hard letting go, the satisfaction of completion, the whole extraordinary experience of these last few weeks–have its way with us.

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We walk back to town and have a late lunch near the harbor. I spend the rest of the afternoon journaling. Trying to capture the stories while they are still fresh in my mind. Hoping the rough notes I have written in snatches here and there, along with the photos, will help me remember. Because they are stories worth telling. Of this I am sure.

finisterre

Recollection is the final discipline of the pilgrim-poet-traveler, which entails recalling the vows taken before departing, revering the idea that once we have been blessed with the gift of the journey, so now we must bless. We can continually recall beauty through the practice of memory, through daily acts of imagination that seize the moments that once seized our hearts…

The art of pilgrimage is the craft of taking time seriously, elegantly. What every traveler confronts sooner or later is that the way we spend each day of our travel…is the way we spend our lives.

~Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage

*Thank you, Jorge, for the group photo.

A Pilgrim Tale: day thirty-three

I don’t remember rolling up my sleeping bag or packing away my gear for the last time. I don’t remember walking down the hall to brush my teeth, or lacing up my boots. But I am sure I did all these things.

I do remember that the sky was the color of rose petals. And the air was cool, but soft. And we walked mostly downhill, til we were in the city. There was a monument. Then the city was like any other.

And not like…

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We breakfast at a cafe where we see the familiar tortilla. And the very unfamiliar rose tea. And all the tables are indoors and everything is clean and bright and the owner moves about calmly and easily and some people look like they are dressed for the office. And I wish we were bumping into one another and sitting out on the sidewalk and the owner was bustling and something about the place was a little run down, and friendly.

Jan, David, Mike and I stop at the inn where we will share a room tonight and drop off our backpacks. It feels wonderful to be walking without them. It feels strange to be walking without them.

We decide to head to the pilgrim office straightaway before the line gets too long. This turns out to be a good idea. But we almost miss Jorge, Kelly, Otto, Jose, and gang. Almost. We had walked with Otto for a while earlier this morning, but he and Jose went on while we were leaving bags. And yet, like iron filings to a magnet, we seem to be drawn to one another.

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We find Jorge and Kelly, Kathy and Catherine in the square just as several others arrive. We hail Otto who is walking away and take a group photo. This picture will be one of the treasures of the Camino for me. Then we run into Nathadeo who we haven’t seen since we sang with the nuns in Carrion de los Condes.

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This is one of my favorite stories from the Camino. These two gentleman walked the whole 800 kilometers of the Camino Frances, from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago, just like we did. All the mountains and valleys, all the rocky terrain and narrow, briery paths, all the puddles and cow patties. Here is the difference: the fellow on the left, he’s blind. Watching them move in concert is like listening to a duo that has been singing into one another for so long that they breathe together. Some friendships are given to us as examples, to know just how far love can go. This is one of those.

The Cathedral is undergoing renovations which means that we cannot access the Portico of Glory. We walk round to the other side to enter. We queue up to “hug” the statue of St. James. Then, we walk down to the crypt to venerate the body of our Lord’s own apostle. This is a solemn moment.

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Coming out of the cathedral, we run into Paul and Lasse who we haven’t seen for days. Mike is not with them. He too will arrive on this day, but we will not see him. Jan and David will find him in Finisterre, though. AND we see Adam, our friend from Poland, with whom we also have lost contact for a bit. We have one last beer with the boys and share a few final tales of the road. Bittersweet.

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We choose from a dizzying array of tapas for lunch, pop our head into a few shops looking for gifts for our kids, our granddaughter and our godchildren, then go back to the inn for a little rest. We head over to the cathedral around 6:00 to snag a seat for the 7:30 pilgrim mass and who should we find resting just outside, but Damien, Psicobeta, Filipe and Claudia! They have walked 40 kilometers today to be here for the evening mass. It is SO GOOD to see them.

Shortly before the mass begins, a feisty little nun comes out to teach us a couple of responses we will need later in the service. Then the mass begins. Like all of the masses along the way, this one is in a combination of Spanish and Latin, so I understand little. But it is nice to know the responses.

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You may or may not have ever heard of the Botafumeiro. It is an inordinately large censor. Incense has been used in worship since the pre-temple days of the Old Testament. It is still essential in the practice of Orthodox and Catholic Christians today. But I’ll bet you’ve never seen a censor quite like this one. The story goes that part of the reason for its size was to help cover the stench of the pilgrims. This, I believe. (The above photo is its support structure.)

The Botafumeira is not used at every mass as the cost of the incense is prohibitive. But we have heard that it is commonly used on Friday night. So we are glad to be here on Friday. Still, it’s not a sure thing. Til we see the men in red cloaks, one of whom carries a shovel (as in a garden shovel, you understand) full of charcoal and incense. Then we know.

However extraordinary you imagine it would be to stand here, it is a thousand times more so. I have provided you with a taste. But only a taste. The music, our prayers arising as incense, the weary bodies so full of miles, the stories, the love that has knit so many of us into one another…

And then it’s over. Except it’s not. We walk out into the night to find our young friends again: the newlyweds, Damien and Psicobeta, and friends Claudia and Felipe. We talk about their long walk today and they ask us if we remember the spiritual Mike and Paul sang at Granon. “We have been changing it up a bit as we walked,” they say. And right there, in the gathering dark outside a cathedral in Spain, they sing…

I believe it too.

Go with God, dear friends!

I miss you already.

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Once the soul awakens, the search begins and you can never go back. From then on, you are inflamed with a special longing that will never again let you linger in the lowlands of complacency and partial fulfillment. The eternal makes you urgent. You are loath to let compromise or the threat of danger hold you back from striving toward the summit of fulfillment.

~John O’Donohue

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