Category Archives: inspirational essay

The Power of Compliments

Girlfriends Holding Flowers

Cristin slammed the kitchen door behind her when she came home from work a few weeks ago. She threw her Starbucks apron on a chair. “Mom, a new girl named Ashley started today, and I’m supposed to train her. But I can’t stand her!”

I looked up from the bills I’d been paying at the table. “I’m sorry, Hon. What, exactly, is the problem?”

“Well, first of all, she’s rude. She obviously doesn’t know how to operate the cash register, even though she worked at another branch of Starbucks for a year. And when I tried to show her how to do it, she told me she doesn’t like register—she prefers making drinks. I’m the supervisor. She’s a barista. She’s supposed to do what I ask.”

“So what did you do?”

“To be nice, I put her on bar. But she’s so slow. Instead of getting the drinks out, she flirts with every male customer and backs up the line. And when I asked her—nicely—to try to speed things up, she told me I was jealous of her beauty. Mom, she’s not even pretty.”

I took my reading glasses off my nose, folded them, and placed them on the table. In my mind I was in back in aerobics class in the early 1980s. There, always flirting with Ken, the hunky male instructor, was a young woman named Lynn.

How annoying she was. The way she always got to class early to make sure she would snag a spot up front. The way she tousled her hair before the mirror to ensure it was its Farrah Fawcett best. The way she giggled and chatted with Ken as he was setting up his music. The way she wagged her shiny-leotarded hips to the pulse of “It’s Raining Men.”

Every time I saw her I was peeved at her, but I was twice as peeved at myself. I strive to be a warm and giving person, to treat everyone I encounter as I’d like to be treated myself. Lynn put me to the test.

Whenever I entered the health club and felt my pique begin to rise, I’d focus mind, spirit, and body in an effort to beat it down. First, I’d reason with myself: Jan, you don’t even know her; she’s never done anything to hurt you. Next, I’d turn to prayer: Please God, give me patience with that flirt. Then, I’d take pragmatic action, moving as far from Lynn as possible and averting my eyes.

But one day as I performed this ritual, Lynn came up to me and smiled. “Cute legwarmers,” she said. “They go great with your leotard.”

We wound up having coffee after class. She told me she taught high school math. Her school was a taxing place to work—cantankerous principal, rowdy students—so she rushed to aerobics every evening to help relieve her stress.

She told me she was recently divorced and felt lonely and down about herself. Her husband had been having an affair with a woman he claimed was more attractive.

She also asked me to talk about myself, and when I did, I could tell she listened closely. She insisted on paying for the coffee. Within weeks, we became friends.

I learned quite a bit from Lynn: How a person’s annoying behavior often masks insecurity and pain. How compliments can open people up and shatter resentments.

I was lucky Lynn had thought to praise my outfit. By doing so she’d disarmed me and enabled our friendship to begin. And I realized that this could have happened sooner if I’d stood up to my hostility when it first reared its ugly head by choosing to give Lynn a sincere compliment myself.

I’ve done this many times since I met Lynn. Whenever I feel irked by someone, I try my best to move beyond my gut reaction, discern the person’s strengths, and extend an honest compliment.

This has rarely been difficult to do. When I was bugged by a law school classmate who frequently brown-nosed professors, I told her I admired her mastery of Torts. She thanked me and confessed that she was struggling with her courses and fretted she wouldn’t earn good grades.

When I was piqued by a new lawyer colleague who sent me frequent, needless memos, I told him I appreciated his hard work. He explained he was grateful to have joined our firm; when he lost his previous job, he feared he’d have to practice on his own.

When I was peeved by a young Polish priest who gave incomprehensible sermons, I told him I enjoyed the way he sang the Mass. He smiled and said he’d been striving to reduce his Polish accent, which he worried was too thick to understand.

Did the compliments I gave stop the behaviors that had bugged me? Sometimes, but that’s beside the point. It’s not my place to try to change other people; it’s my job to change myself and become tolerant and embracing. This takes constant work.

Did the praise that I extended always lead to lasting friendships? No, just occasionally. But it always dissolved the enmity I felt and smoothed relationships.

So I looked at Cristin. “You know, Hon. Maybe Ashley acts the way she does because she’s feeling insecure. She’s new at your Starbucks, after all. Or maybe she’s jealous since you’re the one in charge. Or maybe she has problems outside work. Have you ever tried to praise her?”

Just yesterday, Cristin came in the kitchen door at the end of her shift. This time I was putting groceries in the fridge. Cristin took a milk container from the table and handed it to me.

“Mom, I forgot to tell you, I gave Ashley a compliment a couple of weeks ago. I told her she has great rapport with customers. Right away she began helping more with tasks and doing better work. She’s even stopped flirting with the guys. And today we went out to lunch together. She’s really kind of nice.”

Originally published in Good Letters.

Cutting the Cord: An Observation from The Way of Saint James

JanVallone2

Sean was not an easy child to raise. My husband and I became his parents through adoption and met his birthmother prior to his birth. Young, freckled, and sweet, Janet decided to have a C-section and asked me to be present although she’d be unconscious herself.

On the scheduled day, I stood in an operating room wearing surgical scrubs. Nurses buzzed around, readying forceps and scalpels. An anesthesiologist worked Janet’s IV and checked the electrocardiograph. Janet drifted off, breathing slowly and steadily, her bare belly bulging from a sea of deep blue cloth.

The obstetrician came into the room, holding out freshly scrubbed forearms and hands. He chose a scalpel from a tray as the nurses gathered around. Poising its tip below Janet’s navel, he nodded at his assistants.

A quick slash, a glint of steel. A swarm of elbows and hands like bees around a hive. A bloody eel slithered from the wound—the umbilical cord—and hung between the table and the doctor’s hands. I couldn’t see the baby, just the doctor’s back.

The doctor fussed a bit and looked at me. “Jan, I need your help.” He motioned to a tray with his elbow. “You’ll need the scissors and the clamp.”

Moving beside the doctor, I took the instruments from the tray, slipped the scissors on my fingers. I turned to my first glimpse of Sean—his slimy, bloody body, his writhing head and limbs. I spread the scissor blades apart, cut and clamped the cord, then stroked Sean’s tiny wrist, his eyes opening for a moment, flickering gray-green.

A nurse picked Sean up, weighed him, and showed me how to sponge-bathe him: “Pay special attention to creases under the arms, behind the ears, around the neck, in the diaper area, and to the spaces between the fingers and toes. Then clean the cord stump with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol.”

She also showed me how to swaddle him: “Place him face up on a blanket, pick up a corner, wrap the blanket around his body—snugly, but not too tightly, being careful of the cord—and tuck the blanket beneath him, leaving his head and neck exposed.”

I can’t begin to count the times I cleaned and swaddled Sean in the days and years that followed, even after his baby fat and folds gave way to the long, lean body he’s possessed since toddlerhood. From the moment Sean discovered that he had the power to propel himself, he had a penchant for risk, adventure, imprudence, the forbidden, and injuring himself.

One time, when he was four years old, I’d left him in his bedroom napping soundly—his eyes rolling in their sockets, his breaths even and deep. I took advantage of the moment to collect some laundry from the dryer and was busy folding clothes when I heard a crash and screams.

I ran to Sean’s bedroom. There I saw a toppled highboy dresser, its drawers half-sprung, their contents spilling out. A tiny arm and leg protruded from the rubble. Sean was shrieking, “Mommy, Mommy, hep!!!”

I righted the highboy dresser, a drawer unexpectedly sliding fully out and tumbling on my son, adding insult to injury. Heart pounding, eyes tearing, I pulled Sean from the wreckage: his bones seemed to be unbroken, but blood spurted from a deep laceration in his head.

Frantic, I picked up my son and carried him to the bathroom, where I laid him on the floor. Blood puddled on the tiles as I tried to stop the bleeding. I cleaned the gash and dressed it with gauze pads and fabric tape. Then I wrapped Sean in a towel, drove him to the ER, and held his swaddled, squirming body as the doctor sutured the wound.

Later, after the stiches, Sean told me he’d wanted to reach a stuffed “aminal” that I’d left on top of the dresser, but being short, he’d opened some drawers to use as a ladder up.

That was just one of many gashes I cleaned and bound as Sean went though his childhood and tween years and took up skiing, soccer, hiking, whittling, baseball, biking, climbing, and punching bullies who roughhoused kids at school. But while his early wounds were literal, those I tended later were metaphorical.

When Sean was a sophomore at college, he called right before Thanksgiving to confess he’d not been to classes since October when a close friend had drowned in a lake. Instead of doing any work, he’d holed up in his dorm room drinking beer, smoking weed, writing poems, and entertaining girls. His professors and advisors had informed him it was too late to make up his assignments, so he would fail all of his courses and be suspended for the academic year.

Hearing this, I jumped into the car and drove four hours through a blizzard to meet with Sean’s advisors. I argued Sean was suffering from depression and brokered a medical withdrawal: he’d receive no Fs, saving his GPA. The suspension would have to stand, though, so I helped Sean move out of his dorm room, piling clothes, books, and skis into car with the snow careening down.

At home, I gave Sean his orders: He would go to counseling until March, then begin a leadership program where he’d spend three months in the wild learning outdoor skills and studying ecology. In the fall, he’d return to school.

Right or wrong, I’d once again attempted to clean and swaddle my son. And I did it over and over for the next five years as Sean meandered towards adulthood: for every two steps right and forward, he took one step left and back, and for each misstep he took I stepped in to get him back on track.

Last summer Sean earned a BA in environmental education and a certificate to work as an emergency medical technician. Since the road had been arduous and long, we made plans to celebrate his milestones by walking a comparable path, The Way of Saint James in Spain. Nonetheless, despite Sean’s accomplishments, I harbored doubts that he’d actually matured.

The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage that began in the Middle Ages and remains popular today. Each year pilgrims from all around the world walk from points throughout Europe to visit the tomb of the Apostle James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

Some pilgrims make the journey for sport, some to pray for miracles, others for contemplation. Heads swathed from blazing sun, blisters bursting in boots, backs bent under packs dangling emblematic scallop shells, many trek hundreds of miles, spending a month or more on the road, but most walk about sixty, taking less than a week.

Sean, my husband, Mark, and I would follow the rugged Primitivo route, hiking 200 miles in twelve days.

The Camino Primitivo is the original way to Santiago, although these days it’s been eclipsed by the much more travelled Camino Francés. It begins in Oviedo, Spain, a city northeast of destination with a cathedral called San Salvador that took eight centuries to build.

The cathedral’s Cámara Santa houses the sudarium, a bloodstained cloth claimed to have swathed Jesus’s head in death. Thus, pilgrims on the Primitivo like to scoff at those on the Francés: Why visit the servant and fail to call upon the Lord?

Outside the cathedral there’s a brass plaque embedded in the pavement that marks the Primitivo’s start. Sean, Mark, and I set out one August morning, first winding through city streets, then through suburban sprawl. After crossing a metal footbridge over railroad tracks, we passed through a hilly, grassy park, the sky a brilliant azure, the sun warm but not hot.

Soon we came to San Lázaro Paniceres, a tiny town where a hospital for pilgrims existed in the 1300s but which today is known for a wooden hórreo, a common Spanish granary raised on pillars to keep the rodents out. In Lampajúa we stopped at the Capilla del Carmen, one of many tiny chapels that pilgrims through the centuries have built along the way.

After that, the landscape changed frequently. We passed through rural towns of red, green, and yellow stucco houses. We strolled through meadows of poppies, heather, and angelica.

We mooed at curly-horned cows grazing in fields at the roadside. We wandered through eucalyptus forests, the sun speckling the ground.

We crossed footbridges over streams where dragonflies hovered in the mist. All the while a fresh breeze cooled us, carrying the scents of bay, fennel, and mint.

Often, as the hours passed, we switched configurations on the path: sometimes Sean and Mark hiked ahead to yammer about sports; other times Sean and I strolled behind to philosophize about life.

Sometimes we trudged in procession, each of us lost in private thoughts; other times Mark and I hung back to observe and gossip about Sean; and sometimes we walked three abreast to tell jokes or to play I Spy.

In the early evening we reached the turnoff to Grado, a busy commercial town where Mark and I would spend the night in a B&B room we’d reserved. Sean would hike three more miles to San Juan de Villapañada. There he planned to bunk at the albergue—a pilgrims’ hostel run by volunteers where beds were first come, first served.

At the fork, Sean stopped and looked at me. “Got to book it now, Mom, so I can get a bed. See you at the hostel in the morning.”

Of course, I didn’t want to let him go. He’d never toured alone in Europe and his Spanish was rudimentary. I imagined him getting lost, breaking a leg, losing his cash, not snagging a bunk, being bitten by bedbugs, running off with a girl, getting drunk on cerveza.

“Please be safe,” I said.

“I’ll be fine, Mom. Just don’t worry!” Then he hugged me and strode up the path, walking sticks clicking on gravel, knapsack bouncing on his back.

In the morning I was anxious to retrieve him. Shortly after breakfast, Mark and I set out. As we walked down the central street of Grado, local women waved from upstairs windows, calling out in dialect to direct us to the path. The asphalt gave way to cobbles, then dirt, and the trail, now edged by mauve hydrangeas, ascended steeply up a hill.

We climbed for almost two hours. I could feel my breathing falter and my legs begin to ache.

Where on earth was the albergue? Where the hell was Sean?

Suddenly, there he was, sitting on a bench beneath some trees around a bend. He stood and patted my shoulder: “Steep hill, Mom. How are your feet?”

He had good reason to ask. This wasn’t my first Camino. The year before Mark and I had walked the Francés and my feet had swollen badly; my boots had bruised my toes purple and caused bleeding blisters on my soles.

I’d brought different shoes for this Camino. “My feet are pretty good, Sean. There aren’t any hot spots, just the mildest rubbing on some toes.”

Sean motioned to the bench. “Sit. Let me take a look.”

“Hon, really, you don’t need to.”

He nodded: “Yes, I do.”

So I sat, and Sean plunked himself beside me, pulling my feet onto his lap. He slipped off my boots and socks and began to examine my feet. “Like I thought,” he said. “There’s chaffing on the big and pinky toes.”

He pulled a first-aid kit from his backpack, found some alcohol prep pads, and cleaned my feet methodically. Then he took out a roll of fabric tape, tore off custom-measured pieces, and snuggly wrapped each toe. When he was done, he slipped my socks and shoes back on my feet and tied the laces up.

At that moment, I looked at Sean and realized he’d become the man I hoped he’d be. We had come full circle. In the past, I had cleaned and swaddled him. Now he had cleaned and swaddled me.

The next day would be his twenty-fifth birthday—time to cut the cord again.

Originally published in Good Letters.

Remembering Kindness

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I didn’t think I’d make it through that Tuesday. There I was, sitting in my car as the Fremont Bridge was opening to let a yacht pass through. This was not an occurrence I had planned on, as I’d never known the bridge to open on a winter morning in all the years I’d taught at Seattle Pacific University. And it meant I’d be late to class.

I hate being late, so much that it rarely ever happened. Still, the few times that it had, I’d been able to keep my cool. This time, though, was different. I screamed and cursed at the bridge, pummeled my fists on the steering wheel, felt like crying. I’d become a discombobulated mess.

Perhaps this is understandable. I was teaching twelve credits that quarter and was enrolled in a nighttime master’s program, burning the candle at both ends. I’d spent the weekend prepping for my teaching, grading a massive pile of papers, reading and writing.

Then, on Sunday afternoon, my son called from college to say he’d been injured playing Frisbee: “No big deal, Mom, just a hernia. It happened a few days ago—sorry I didn’t call sooner—but the doc says the procedure is routine and he scheduled the surgery for tomorrow. Can you drive up? You’re off on Mondays, right?” Right. I just teach six hours on Tuesday, have a paper due on Wednesday, and was counting on Monday to work.

A son, though, is a son.

I will spare you a detailed description of the series of fiascos that was Monday, except to say that my son’s surgery was delayed for many hours (although it went fine), the surgery center had no cafeteria, and I drove home four hours through a blizzard in the middle of night. When the Fremont Bridge went up on Tuesday morning, I’d been foodless and sleepless for a day. I was dying for a pre-class snack and coffee, which the bridge had snatched from me.

I reached my classroom several minutes late. The students’ eyes were upon me as I pulled my book from my briefcase and stripped off my coat. My stomach was growling wildly and I felt unsteady on my feet, but I’d have to make due: the class was three hours long, our goal to discuss the whole of Night.

Night is the Holocaust memoir of Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who in the story is the adolescent Eliezer. Beautifully written, painful to read, replete with insight, Night was among my favorite books to teach.We dove right in, discussing each segment: Eliezer’s childhood in Transylvania, his initial deep belief in God, his family’s deportation to Auschwitz, the brutality the prisoners endured, Eliezer’s waning faith.

We came to a part of the story that was among the most moving to me. Eliezer, underfed and weak, is forced to work at a concentration camp warehouse overseen by a volatile Kapo. One day, for little reason, the Kapo jumps on Eliezer and proceeds to beat him. Eliezer crawls into a corner, bleeding and broken. Just then, Eliezer feels a cool hand wipe his brow. It belongs a forced labor deportee—an Aryan girl from France who has never spoken to him. She smiles at Eliezer, looks into his eyes, slips him some bread, and says some soothing words in German, as he doesn’t speak French.

At this point the story flashes forward. Many years later in Paris, Wiesel is reading on the Metro. He looks up and sees a woman with beautiful eyes and suddenly recognizes her—the French girl from the warehouse. The two go to a café and Wiesel confirms what he’s long suspected: the woman was really Jewish and had worked in the warehouse on forged papers. By speaking German to Eliezer, she’d risked her cover and her life.

I asked my students: “Why would Wiesel choose to break the flow of his story and jump to the Metro scene? We’re far into the book, and he’s never flashed forward before.” The students regarded me thoughtfully, then one suggested: “The scene was important to Wiesel. His book is about not forgetting the evil that people are capable of. Maybe he wanted to show that a simple kindness is a powerful thing that should also be remembered and oftentimes is.”

Yes. That’s why I loved that scene.

We moved through the remainder of the memoir. When class was over at noon, I dashed out the door. My next class would start in ten minutes, the room was far across campus, and I was more desperate than ever for a snack and coffee. I stopped in the Subway in the quad, but the line was a serpent, so I tried the Starbucks. The queue here too was long: a trio of students at the front, a couple of professors, a lone male student, and a quintet of female students right before me.

The barista wasn’t speedy and the orders were complex: a tall, nonfat latte with caramel drizzle; a grande, iced, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soymilk; a triple, venti, no-foam, soy latte.

I looked at my watch as the barista processed the professors. Five minutes to go before class. At this rate I wouldn’t make it. I considered approaching the male student and offering to pay for his order as a way of bypassing the girls, but guilt struck immediately, so I gave up the idea. The boy ordered, received his drink.

I checked my watch. No choice: I’d have to bolt and starve.

Then I heard a voice. “Can I treat you to coffee?”

I turned. It was the first of the five girls before me, about to place her order.

“Excuse me?”

She smiled, looked into my eyes. “I’d like to buy you coffee.”

No, I’d not experienced a holocaust. No, the girl hadn’t risked her life. But the coffee that she offered helped me make it through the day, and I will remember her kindness for many years to come.

First published in Good Letters.

The Iron Cross: An Observation from the Way of Saint James

CruzdeFerro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I didn’t know Julia well.

The first time I saw her, she was sitting at the far end of the table around which our language class met. Although I knew the instructor, Chiara, it was my first day with this group of students who for years had gathered in Chiara’s dining room to discuss classic books in Italian.

That day I was the last one to arrive, and when I entered the room the group was already engaged in friendly pre-class conversation. As I took my seat, six pairs of eyes looked up at me, six mouths chorused “Piacere” with American twangs, and six hands reached across the table to shake mine.

But the person I noticed most was Julia, a trim woman about my age with a strawberry bob and a smile like a lamp.

Since I was new to the class, Chiara asked the veterans to introduce themselves: Filippo, Becca, Davide, Laura, Carla—all genial, interesting people who loved everything Italian.

But again, it was Julia who drew me. A psychologist with a PhD, she seemed warm, spoke Italian perfectly, listened to others with attention, as if they were the center of her world. Of all the members of the group, she was the one I hoped to make my friend.

Before turning to the novel we were reading, Elsa Morante’s La Storia, Chiara asked us students what we’d thought of our first assignment. Several confessed they had busy lives and for them the week’s reading was too lengthy—seventy pages requiring eight to twelve hours. But Julia said she’d had no problem—she’d even read ahead—having too few diversions in her life and too much time on her hands.

Really? A woman like her?

We discussed La Storia for a couple of hours. It focuses on the life of Ida, a Roman widow who carries many crosses: epilepsy, rape, single motherhood, a half-Jewish pedigree during World War Two, hunger, poverty, homelessness, the death of two young sons. Ida’s a very complex character, and Julia zealously engaged in our analysis of her. She seemed to identify with Ida, her voice becoming gentle whenever she mentioned her name.

When class ended, everyone stood up, that is, everyone but Julia, and a man I hadn’t seen before entered the room. “Ciao Roy,” the others said while packing their belongings. Tall, dark-haired, and slim, Roy nodded and smiled, then made a beeline to Julia. From her chair, Julia looked up at him, and from his height, Roy looked down at her. That’s when I first saw it: reciprocal adoration, the fusion of two souls.

“You doing okay?” Roy said as pushed her chair from the table. “Yes,” she smiled. Then he slid his arms under her thighs, and with her shoulder leaning on his chest and her head resting on his shoulder, he tenderly picked her up, carried her out of the room, through the front door, and down the porch steps.

Outside, a wheelchair had been parked and Roy settled Julia in it, making sure she was comfortable. Then he wheeled her to a waiting car and slid her into the passenger seat. After stowing the wheelchair, Roy climbed into the car and sped way.

I was shocked. How could Julia be in a wheelchair? Such a smart, sparkling person. How unjust it seemed. No wonder she identified with Ida. She too carried a cross. No wonder she welcomed distractions. She was trapped in a metal chair.

Chiara told me her story. Julia and Roy had been married more than thirty years. They had met in a dance class in their twenties and become inseparable. They’d always led an active life, doing everything together—dancing, walking, running, watching movies, traveling in Italy.

But when Julia was in her fifties, her legs began to tingle. Over time they progressively weakened, becoming paralyzed. Her doctors diagnosed a syndrome that could potentially interfere with her breathing and eventually take her life.

Her case, though, wasn’t wholly hopeless. Many people with the same syndrome survive and recover completely. Since that could take weeks, months, or years, Roy and Julia were optimistic. Maybe she would be among the lucky ones.

Still, at the moment, Julia needed full-time care and Roy provided it. He bathed her, dressed her, fed her, did all the household chores. He carried her to the toilet, onto the airplane for vacations, and into Chiara’s house for class. And each time I saw her in his arms, I was moved by their obvious affection, the way she nuzzled against him, the way he rested his chin on her head.

How I wished I could wave a magic wand and cure Julia’s illness. How I wished I could see her stand and walk hand-in-hand with Roy.

But I didn’t have a magic wand. So I resolved to say a prayer for Roy and Julia at the base of the Cruz de Ferro when I walked The Way of Saint James.

The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage that began in the Middle Ages and remains popular today. Each year pilgrims from all around the world walk from points throughout Europe to reach the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Some do it for sport, others for contemplation, others to pray for miracles. In September 2013 my husband and I were among the pilgrims. We began our walk in León, trekking 200 miles in twelve days.

Our first day ended in Hospital de Órbigo, a village with an arched Gothic bridge, our second took us to Astorga, a small city with a gorgeous Gaudí palace, and our third finished in Rabanal del Camino, a stone village with a tiny central square.

On the fourth day of our Camino, we rose before dawn and departed Rabanal. As we walked a country road beneath the moon and stars, I could feel the grade increasing, straining the backs of my legs. We were ascending the pass of Irago. Soon the sun rose lemon-yellow, revealing iridescent mountains, releasing the scents of heather and gorse.

We arrived in a village called Foncebadón. There, in the eleventh century, a hermit named Gaucelmo had built a hospital, hospice, and church for the pilgrims on the Camino, but these had fallen into ruins, which we passed as we left town.

By midmorning the day was growing hot, and we reached the Cruz de Ferro, a simple iron cross atop a thirty-foot, weathered, wooden mast that marks the highest point of the Camino. According to tradition, Gaucelmo had built the cross too.

The Cruz de Ferro is surrounded by a hillock of stones amassed through the years by pilgrims who perform a special ritual there. They bring a stone from their homeland, or one they’ve picked up along The Way, and add it to the hummock.

Each stone is symbol of a burden a pilgrim wants to leave behind before leaving the Cruz de Ferro and beginning life afresh. Some stones have messages written on them, others the names of towns or people. Some have paper notes or photos tied to them, others stuffed bunnies or bears.

I’d come prepared for this moment. From my backpack I sifted a pebble I’d brought from my garden at home. Holding it in one hand, I climbed the hillock of stones, which shifted and clinked beneath my feet. When I reached the base of the mast, I looked up along its length at the turquoise sky. There, high above my head, the iron cross glinted hazy in the sunlight making me squint my eyes.

I kneeled at the base of the mast, pressing my forehead on the wood. I thanked God that I had legs to walk and vowed to finish the Camino for Julia, whose legs no longer worked. I prayed for Julia’s healing, that she could soon leave behind her wheelchair, symbolized my stone. Then I placed my stone among the others, stood, and descended the mound.

There, at the bottom of the hillock, I saw a young woman and man who had just arrived. They were standing, locked in an embrace, tears streaming although they were smiling, with the shadow of the Cruz de Ferro cast long on the grass beside them. That’s when I saw it once again: reciprocal adoration, the fusion of two souls.

I didn’t know the couple’s story and I didn’t need to. For me, they were Julia and Roy, the way they’d been before the wheelchair, the way I’d prayed they’d be again.

I never told Julia or Roy about the Cruz de Ferro, prayer, or stone. I never tried to befriend them; the timing seemed all wrong. But I continued to go to Italian, each week more moved by their bond.

One day towards the end of class, Julia was commenting on a character when she began coughing and gasping. Her eyes protruded from their sockets, staring around at us in terror. Someone grabbed a glass of water, another took her by the shoulders and tried to calm her down, another seized a phone.

Roy arrived at that moment, and the rest of us moved to the sides. He crouched before his wife, looking straight into her eyes. He asked her to match his respiration—inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale—as husbands often do with Lamaze. Soon Julia was breathing, and Roy carried her away.

They never came to class again. Julia died, her breathing having failed her, six months after my Camino.

I don’t picture death, though, when I think of Julia and Roy. Instead, I see them standing, locked in an embrace, tears streaming as they smile, with the shadow of the Cruz de Ferro cast long on the grass beside them. The sun shining overhead, the wheelchair now discarded, they are free from their iron cross.

 

First published in Good Letters.

Calling 2008

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The Kindle version of my memoir, Pieces of Someday, is free on Amazon through Nov. 5, 2014. Please download it by clicking the link to the right and tell your friends about it!  I’d love to give away as many copies as I can, and I hope you enjoy it.  If you do, please write an Amazon review.   

The following is the opening section:

What am I doing here this morning, sitting in a church when it’s not Christmas? Sunlit clouds, breeze tinged warm, pink clematis scent—I should be out in my garden. For twenty years I’ve driven by this place, felt the pull of its wine brick walls and copper steeple. Cornerstoned when my grandparents boarded steamships from Palermo, this Seattle landmark never called me in until this moment. Possibly its name has been the dissuasion—Blessed Sacrament— saccharine as raindrops on roses. Or maybe I still don’t understand what a blessed sacrament is.

I survey the strangers gathered in the pews—the quartet of moonfaced girls sitting to my right, their University of Washington sweatshirts nubby, needing bleach. They whisper, nod, and smile— smooth skin, glossy hair, teeth straight and white. To my left is a gray- haired woman in a hand-me-down cap. It’s crocheted, studded with buttons—S’ mores Not Wars, Hope Obama ’08. Crinkly eyes, liver- spotted cheeks, whisker-stubbled chin, she’s transfixed by something on the altar. Jesus crucified? Must be. For here, except for the icons, there’s a howling scarcity of men. Only Saints Dominic, Jude, Thomas, and Francis stand niched and polished around us. They watch in mahogany silence, this nave of waiting women, this raftered ark with its faint incense smell.

The walk from my house to this church took less time than I’d imagined, past Cowan Park, the student rentals reeking weed, Pierced Hearts Tattoo, the Wayward’s coffee cloud. Past the bungalow with the big magnolia and the homeless teen crouched in the doorway of the bar who reached his palm out to me, cut my core with steel-gray eyes. If I’d had the courage of a year ago, I would have stopped before him. I would have taken him by the hand. I would have pulled him to his feet and urged him to come along, for it’s the church’s Called and Gifted Workshop that’s drawn me. My kids are grown, away at college, last June I lost my job, and I can’t seem to find a new one, three decades of résumé be damned. Is this what middle age means? Superfluous, obsolete? Which is why I left the boy behind. The blind leading the blind.

The last time I heard about callings, I was probably twelve years old. Every Wednesday afternoon, Teresa Giordano and I left public school early to go to Catechism on a church bus. I was embarrassed by the attention this practice garnered at our mostly Jewish junior high, but also grateful that at least at Saint Christopher’s, I was counted among the flock. I remember the day Sister Agnes chalked vocation on the blackboard, her sprawling, spidery script, her rosary-crucifix-swinging habit hip. She explained that vocation was a calling, the work God created us to do. Each of us would have one, each would be unique, and God would give us the necessary talents—gifts—to do it well. Some of us would be doctors or nurses, others firemen or teachers, many husbands or wives. If we followed our callings, we’d please God by serving man. Every day of our lives, we needed to listen carefully for God’s voice so when He revealed our callings we would hear.

 ***

Gifts. A special calling. Through the years I’ve often thought about those teachings, sometimes with anger, others with longing, always with sadness. I’m old now, Sister Agnes, when will my revelation come? And how will I recognize God’s voice? Are my dreams signs of my calling? Or are they just sinister specters rising from the refuse of my childhood? After all, both the Crusaders and Al Qaeda thought they were heeding the call of God.

 ***

The light shifts in the church. Rainbowed sunbeams moving through stained glass draw my eyes to the panes above the altar. Jesus in white robes, golden crown upon his head, raises an amber chalice emitting a nimbus of flames. The Virgin Mary prays in turquoise; Saint John clasps a scarlet book. Then a host of swirling symbols— an emerald scale, a stringed harp, a silver sword. A pair of candles, a yellow star, a nodding lily. A russet heart, a rising sun, a purple fish. A pelican pierces her breast, splay-beaked fledglings at her knee.

 ***

When I was a little girl, my cousin Angela told me life’s a circle, and looking across the generations, I suppose she was right. We are born, have children—at least those who can and want to. Then we die and, theoretically, our children carry on.

But I pictured life as a vector, one leading to a place called There. To arrive, I’d have to work hard—that’s what my father said. I’d also have to be good, which I knew meant do as I was told thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Then one day I’d finally be There, in an Oz of endless sunshine, love, and reward where I could remain for all time.

Now life seems neither circle nor vector. Those shapes are too simple, one-directional. So I’ve tossed away both paradigms, and that’s just fine. I did well enough in math, but only through resolve and application. Numbers, graphs, and figures don’t come naturally to me.

Life, it now seems, is a stained glass window composed of bits of translucence and opacity—fragments of yesterday, chips of today, pieces of someday, soldered with time. Some jewel-like and whole. Some fractured by the weather. Others fallen from their leaden frames. Only fusion and repair complete the image and allow us to make out the picture. Am I a scale, a harp, a star? A candle, anchor, or heart?

And what about tomorrow?

Celebration: An Observation from the Way of Saint James

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My son graduated from college this past June. It took him seven years, due to a hiatus, a transfer, and several changes of major, and there were times I thought I’d never see the day. So when the moment finally arrived, it was time to celebrate.

Now, I grew up in the sixties in New York in an Italian American family, and for us celebrating always meant one thing: inviting family and friends and cooking a meal for them. These meals invariably came in two varieties—formal dinner or cookout—and the circumstances dictated the choice.

The following obliged a formal dinner: all religious holidays; birthdays and other events that took place after Labor Day and before Memorial Day; functions to which clergy, wealthy people, politicians, lawyers, doctors, dentists, business associates, current clients, potential clients, current Anglo in-laws, or any future in-laws were to be invited.

Cookouts were never required but were permissible for celebrations that did not demand a formal dinner and took place from Memorial through Labor Day.

Whether the verdict was formal dinner or cookout, there were rules and procedures to follow, and the women in my family taught me them when I was young. These rules and procedures were immutable. They could not be broken or bent. Never. Not once.

Formal dinners began with an aperitivo, with the group seated in the living room drinking soda, spumante, Campari, or, in my father’s case, a Bombay gin gimlet. At mealtime the hostess called the guests and assigned them seats at the dining room table. The hostess always sat at the end closest to the kitchen with the host presiding at the other end and guests placed boy-girl-boy-girl down the sides, spouses split, and children clustered.

The formal dinner meal required four courses, all wholly homemade:

A medley of antipasti such as calamari in tomato sauce, chilled scungilli salad, and stuffed clams or shrimp; a primo piatto such as lasagna, gnocchi, ravioli, or minestrone (forbidden in summer); a secondo piatto of seasonal vegetables such as sautéed escarole or broccoli rabe and meat such as sausages, pot roast, or spiedini di vitello (permitted in summer only); a dessert such as ricotta cheese cake or cannoli accompanied by vodka-soaked orange slices.

Finger foods and sandwiches were banned.

The table was pivotal at formal dinners. The number of seats available at the fully expanded dining table strictly limited the number of guests. No cramming was permitted, and no one could eat in the kitchen, on the couch, or while standing.

The table required a fine linen cloth and napkins, china, crystal, silverware, flowers, and fresh candles. Extending one cloth with a second one and mixing dinner services were forbidden. If any napkins, plates, glasses, or utensils were missing from a set, the only option was to shorten the guest list.

What’s more, for formal dinners, the hostess had to do all the planning, cooking, setup, and serving. No one else was permitted in the kitchen, though female relatives could help with washing up.

I confess that over the years I pared down the food for formal dinners and let my husband do the cleanup, but otherwise I was scrupulous. This is why my family always fled the scene as I engaged in preparations. The ordeal invariably transmuted me into a frenzied bitch.

And once the guests arrived, I couldn’t focus on the conversation, felt disconnected from the group, so tense was I that everything be perfect, that the timing be correct, that no one enter my kitchen and discover dirty pots.

Thank God our convocation celebration could permissibly be a cookout, which had only three rules: the meal had to be outdoors, drinks could not be served in cans or bottles, and metal utensils were required.

Yes, instead of a formal dinner, we would host an evening barbeque. It would take place in the garden, and guests could sit where they pleased, at the wooden patio table or on the lawn chairs, porch steps, or grass. All the food would be self-served from a hodgepodge of pottery platters placed on a gingham-covered buffet. Plates and napkins would be paper, with utensils a mishmash of pieces from old, retired sets.

Our cookout meal would be simple. To begin, we’d set out chips and guacamole. Then my son would toss a big salad, my husband would grill beef and salmon burgers, and I’d boil corn on the cob. Dessert would come from Whole Foods: ice cream and graduation cake.

I no longer live in New York, though, but in Seattle. Here the sixth month of the year is often referred to as Junuary. True to form, the day of the cookout broke with wind and heavy rain. AccuWeather predicted no improvement and an evening of fifty degrees.

What was I to do? Switch to a formal dinner? Impossible. We’d invited several more people than could fit at our tiny table or be equipped with matching dinnerware, and we’d already spent a fortune on fixings for finger foods.

This was clearly a disaster—till I remembered The Way of Saint James.

The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage across Spain that began in the Middle Ages and remains popular today. Each year 200,000 pilgrims walk a route to Santiago de Compostela, a city where, according to tradition, the apostle James the Greater is interred.

Last September my husband and I were among the pilgrims. We hiked 200 miles from Léon in stages, many with Fr. Lukasz, a sprightly, thirty-something priest, and a group of young adults from the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Washington.

Fr. Lukasz set the pattern of our days right at the outset of the journey. The fourth stage was typical. We rose before dawn and departed Rabanal del Camino, a stone village with a tiny central square. As we walked beneath the moon and stars, guided by a few pilgrim headlamps, I could feel the grade increasing, straining the backs of my legs. We were ascending the pass of Irago. Soon the sun rose lemon-yellow, revealing iridescent mountains, releasing the scents of heather and gorse.

By midmorning we reached the Cruz de Ferro, a simple iron cross atop a weathered pole that marks the Camino’s highest point. There we stopped for morning prayers before descending the pass through several villages: Manjarín, Acebo, and Riego de Ambros, where we walked through a grove of giant chestnuts and a green, wild-flowered vale. After crossing a Roman stone bridge over the río Meruelo, we stopped at Molinaseca, a mediaeval town where we would spend the night.

Fr. Lukasz’s practice was to celebrate Mass every evening at the local church. When we arrived at a destination, he’d call the parish priest to make arrangements. Our Mass in Rabanal had taken place at the Iglesia de la Santa Maria, a twelfth century Romanesque chapel. There, the Benedictine monks had sung us Vespers and then joined us for our English-language Mass.

In Molinaseca, though, Fr. Lukasz could reach no priest on the phone, so at six pm we gathered at the parish church to see if we could rustle someone up. The place was shut tight and deserted.

We decided to try another church. Walking up a hill, we found the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de las Angustias tucked into the slope. This eleventh century stone chapel has a bell tower at its center with a courtyard on either side enclosed by iron palisades. Every door was bolted, every gate padlocked.

What were we to do? Have the Mass outside? Unthinkable. More rules govern Roman Catholic Masses than formal dinners in my home.

Like those formal dinners, the Mass has four components: introductory rites, when the priest enters the church and promenades to the altar as the parishioners sing a hymn; the Liturgy of the Word, when the priest reads from the Gospel and gives a homily; the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when the priest prepares the bread and wine and gives communion to the congregation; concluding rites, when the priest dismisses the church.

Every part of the Mass requires a fixed set of prayers, each with a designated posture—sitting, standing, bowing, genuflecting, kneeling—each in a specified location—pew, aisle, ambo, altar—some with a designated gesture—signing the cross, striking the breast, folding the hands.

At Mass, the altar is central. Most often it’s covered in white linen with a crucifix on it or close by. A corporal—another, smaller cloth—must be placed front and center on the altar. There the priest will prepare the Eucharist, pouring wine in a chalice and placing the hosts on a paten—a special communion plate. All serving vessels must be made of precious metal. Two lit candles are required at the altar, though four or six are preferred.

Knowing these rules and procedures, I assumed we’d have to cancel our Mass in Molinaseca, given the closure of the church.

Fr. Lukasz was unfazed, though, and his flock flew into action. Bordering one church courtyard was a gravel lot edged by a curb. There sat a knee-high stone baluster abandoned in a corner. Two muscled pilgrims dragged and rolled it to a central place. Inside the palisaded courtyard a broken marble slab leaned against a wall. Three pilgrims scaled the iron rails and heaved the slab to the other side where others reached up to receive it, hauled it to the baluster, and set it like a tabletop.

Fr. Lukasz whipped some items from his backpack: crucifix, corporal, chalice, flasks of wine and water, hosts, paten, Missal, two votive candles in red glass. He set them on the improvised altar and invited us to Mass.

That evening the sun set tangerine as Fr. Lukasz led our celebration. Passersby joined us in other languages—Spanish, Italian, French. Some of us stood on the gravel, others sat on the curb, few ever changed postures, no one bothered to kneel. After the Eucharist, a breeze came across the mountain and we sang Taizé hymns. I can’t remember ever feeling more communion or a greater peace.

This is why I calmly ditched the rules at my son’s commencement celebration. We pulled a plywood board from our basement and placed it on our dining table, making it big enough for our guests. We covered it with a threadbare cloth, the only cloth large enough we had. We set it with mismatched plates and flatware, paper napkins, and partly used candles. As the rain fell outside the window, our guests chose their own seats, drank their beers from bottles, ate corn and burgers with their hands. All of us chatted and laughed.

Oh, that Molinaseca feeling.

Once, a woman named Martha knocked herself out cooking dinner while her sister sat talking with Jesus. Martha complained about her sister’s idleness; it was the women’s job to serve. Jesus didn’t take her side. Instead, he told Martha to relax and to emulate her sister, who better knew what a celebration was.

 

This essay was originally published in Good Letters, the blog of Image Journal.

Human Touch

ADF PilobolusThese days, we’re besieged by merchants marketing in myriad ways: boulevards blighted with billboards, postboxes bulging with catalogues, televisions blaring commercials, email apps packed with spam, web pages popping ads, telephones pirated by robots.

These strategically planned campaigns are often costly and complex. It seems merchants have forgotten the best business builder in the arsenal, one that costs little or nothing and requires no marketing team: the impromptu generous gesture, the simple human touch.

I recently confronted this reality as my husband and I were completing our eighth season as subscribers to a dance series in Seattle. The series had always been excellent, and we looked forward to it every year.

This season I was especially excited because the spring lineup would include Pilobolus, a particularly imaginative dance troupe of international fame. For decades I’d longed to see them dance. I couldn’t wait to watch the group—named after a barnyard fungus that propels spores with astonishing speed—perform its colorful, lyrical magic on the stage.

A few days before the performance, though, I came down with a fever-bearing flu. Body sweating and shivering, brain delirious, I spent Tuesday through Friday in bed as the rain beat on our roof. On Saturday morning, sunlight seeped though the windowpanes, and I lifted my head from the pillow. Sensing resurging strength and clarity, I climbed out of bed and went to my study for the first time in days.

There, on my desk, my Italian phrase-a-day calendar still displayed the previous Tuesday, so I tore off the daily pages to bring it up to date: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

Friday. I stopped before plucking the page.

Friday. The word tickled something in my brain.

Friday. Pilobolus.

Damn. We had missed the show. In my fevered fog, I’d forgotten all about it. There remained just one performance, that evening, Saturday night.

Time was short; I had to think quickly.

Of course I knew all the theater’s policies regarding ticket exchanges: twenty-four hours’ notice by mail or in person only. Of course I knew I had no right to trade my wasted Friday evening tickets for good ones for Saturday night. Of course I knew the theater couldn’t make exceptions; it was a business, not a charity.

Still, I hoped that someone would help me by granting a ticket swap. After all, I was a loyal subscriber, I’d been violently ill, my lapse was understandable, and I’d pined for Pilobolus for years.

I picked up the phone and called the theater. The line rang a few times, then clicked, chimed twice, and segued to a male recorded voice: “This is the welcome center for the dance theater office. Please choose carefully from our menu. You may press star at any time to return to this greeting. For the dance ticket office, press one. For the dance business office, press two.”

I pressed one: “Thank-you for calling the dance ticket office. For ticket information, press one. For ticket office information, press two.”

I pressed one: “Thank-you for calling the dance ticket office. We are pleased to present Pilobolus. To purchase tickets in advance, visit our website to order online or press one to order by phone during business hours. For business hours press two.”

I pressed two: “Greetings. The dance ticket office is open from ten am to six pm, Monday through Friday, and is closed on Saturday and Sunday. The office is currently closed. On show days, the box office at the theater opens one hour prior to show time. For theater directions, press one. To speak to an attendant, press pound.”

Desperate for a sentient person, I pressed pound and was promptly disconnected.

My husband and I arrived at the theater box office an hour and a half before show time. Already, a line of Pilobolus fans snaked around the theater lobby. We joined the queue. By the time we reached the ticket window, an hour had gone by. Faint from waning flu and waxing frustration, I smiled at the man behind the glass and told him my story. “Please, can you exchange our tickets?”

The man wouldn’t look me. He glanced at the growing crowd. “I’m sorry. That’s not possible. It’s against policy.”

“Please. We’ve subscribed for years. Any seats at all would be wonderful.”

The man shook his head. “It’s not my decision.” He pointed towards a corner of the lobby. “Wait there. I’ll call the manager.”

We stood in the corner half an hour. No manager appeared, and the show sold out.

That night, the theater banked money it would have forfeited had it swapped my tickets and made my day. Plainly, it did nothing wrong; businesses need profits and employees should honor policy—but maybe not mechanically.

This brings to mind another story.

Long ago, when my children were toddlers, my husband and I took them out to dinner after Christmas Eve Mass. We had no extended family in Seattle and were more than a little sad. When we had finished our entrees, our server smiled while clearing the plates. “You know,” she said, “you’re such a beautiful family. Dessert is on the house.”

We looked around us. No one else had been given free desserts.

That moment inspired a tradition. For sixteen successive Christmas Eves, we returned to that restaurant after Mass.

Please permit me to present the computation:

The restaurant’s initial investment: one smile plus four slices of Yule log.

The restaurant’s resulting sales: sixty-four four-course Christmas dinners, sixteen bottles of Chianti, thirty-two Shirley Temples, plus many other similar dinners every calendar year.

The bottom line: There’s nothing better for business than the simple human touch, the spontaneous kindness.

Having missed Pilobolus, I woke up Sunday morning, disaffected from the world. I went to my desk and turned to my phrase-a-day calendar. It still showed Friday, so I tore off the outdated sheets, practicing the Italian I had missed:

Saturday: Per favore, mi può aiutare? Please, can you help me?

Sunday: Certo, con piacere. Certainly, with pleasure.