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.

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Dodging Bullets

 

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They arrived as strangers—freshmen at Seattle Pacific University who’d come to take a course in college writing: A tall girl with a flowered backpack and blond hair fishtailed to one side. A brawny boy with a knitted cap and a ready, brilliant smile. An elfin girl in a madras skirt whose black bangs fluttered with her lashes. A lanky boy in soccer shorts whose green eyes lit his freckled face.

Within days I learned some names and habits: Peter* always strode in early and grabbed a seat by the window in the back. Kaitlin routinely said “Good morning!” and sipped a caramel latte during class. Pilar daily sat before the lectern and lined up sharpened pencils on her desk. Abdul was almost always late and bowed when he slipped into the room.

Within weeks I came to know much more—their sufferings, blessings, worries, hopes, weaknesses, and strengths:

Lindsey had mangled her arm when her boogie board was thrown on Maui sea stacks. She hoped to become a doctor, strove to be on dean’s list, and wrote meticulous papers that were somewhat tedious to read.

Yoel had fled his native Eritrea by perambulating deserts through the night. English was his second language, which he spoke with a lovely lilt. His dream was to become a Christian rock star. Writing essays made him anxious, but he loved crafting spoken-word poems.

Justin had spent some time in Haiti constructing dorms for orphans. A youth leader at his church, he planned to become a minister. His essays were passionate and insightful, though a bit disorganized.

Sarah had found her friend’s body in a bed with a suicide note. She suffered from frequent nightmares. Her goal was to become a counselor who worked with troubled teens. She volunteered for a hotline and wrote gripping narratives.

What wonderful young adults—full of life, heart, experience, potential. It’s no wonder that over the quarter, I grew to love every one of them.

Still, at the end of our last class, I had to say goodbye. I praised them for their learning, wished them a good summer, watched them walk out of the classroom, drove home feeling sad.

When I reached my house, I checked my email as a message was arriving:

!! SPU-Alert: Campus Lockdown: Hello Jan Vallone—Emergency! A campus lockdown has been initiated. This is not a drill. If you are on campus, find the nearest available room and lock the door. If you are on campus, but locked outside a building, seek shelter off campus immediately. If you are not on campus, stay away.

A strange mix of emotions swept over me—confusion, panic, numbness. Wanting more information, I clicked the Seattle Police Twitter line:

Police have found two victims with gunshot wounds @ scene of @SeattlePacific shooting. One suspect in custody. Vics at Otto Miller Hall.

Turning to my TV, I found the breaking news. Onscreen was the campus I’d just left, leafy Seattle Pacific, brick buildings under blue skies.

I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. The street by Otto Miller Hall was clogged with ambulances and police cars. Gurneys were queued on the sidewalk. Medics and officers were running all about.

I couldn’t understand what I was hearing. A reporter said six people had been shot, a gunman detained. Police were searching for another suspect who was still on campus and armed.

A student who had exited the building said she’d seen some injured students in the lobby and one who appeared to be dead. All were sprawled on the floor, which was strewn with bullets and blood.

“Oh my God!” I screamed at the TV. Where were all my students—Pilar, Justin, Lindsey? Were they dodging bullets, or were they already dead?

The Seattle Pacific shooting wasn’t the first to shake me. In 1993, a disgruntled client entered 101 California Street, an office of my husband’s law firm. He shot nine people dead. Like my husband, I was a lawyer, so I feared for both of us.

In 2006, a gunman who claimed he hated Israel entered the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, killing one woman and injuring five. I was then teaching in a nearby Jewish high school, and we worried we’d be next.

In 2012, a shooter known for angry outbursts entered Café Racer in my neighborhood. He murdered five and maimed one more. My daughter works at a nearby Starbucks, and I fret for her every day.

Who isn’t edgy about shootings? They’ve occurred in so many venues, no place now seems safe—not the theater, mall, supermarket, temple, church, train, playground, street, restaurant, stadium, or museum. In schools alone there were thirty-seven shootings during the first half of 2014.

At Seattle Pacific, the facts soon cleared. A lone gunman had wounded two students and killed freshman Paul Lee. None of my students was harmed, though several had been in Otto Miller. A few were Paul’s close friends, and many knew him. All were traumatized.

The gunman at SPU didn’t know any of his targets. His profile is common for mass shooters. With a history of mental illness, he complained he was lonely and unloved, said he just wanted to kill.

I wish shooters could understand that the strangers in their crosshairs are Kaitlins, Peters, and Yoels—people they could grow to love who could grow to love them back, people who could help them fill the void that makes them want to kill. It takes only time, attention, interaction.

If shooters could comprehend this, they’d discard their bullets. But they either can’t or won’t. Something inside them is broken. They aren’t going to change; it’s the rest of us who must.

The causes of violence are complex, but that doesn’t excuse our longtime inaction. Together, we must modify our statutes—be they mental health, gun, commerce, or free expression laws—to make killing sprees less likely. Individually, we have to  compromise.

We can’t accept a life of dodging bullets or death on a shooter’s whim.

*Names have been changed.

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.

Matteo’s Shoes: An Observation from the Way of Saint James

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I wrapped the thick terry robe around me, refreshed by the bubble bath I’d taken scented with lavender salt. What a glorious day it had been. Puerta del Sol, The Prado, Madrid Cathedral, the rose-garden at Retiro Park. Tapas for lunch, a little shopping, then back to our multi-starred hotel.

And that was just the preamble. In two days we’d begin our Camino. We would walk the Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—a pilgrimage across Spain that began in the middle ages and remains immensely popular today. We would trek 200 miles in ten stages, beginning in León and ending at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela with the Pilgrim’s Mass.

ImageMy husband Mark was reading emails on the bed as I toweled off my hair. “Bad news,” he said. “The firm has let go the word processors. The whole department. What will I do without Camille?”

I tossed the towel on a chair. “Why would they fire all those people? Camille’s a single mom. How will she feed her kids if she doesn’t have a job?”

Mark typed something on his iPad. “It’s another cost-cutting measure. Camille has emailed me too. I’ll write her a recommendation. I hope she finds something soon.”

“Still, the layoff is a sin.”

Within days, though, the sin had slipped my mind. We were on stage two of our Camino, and all I could think of was my feet. The day before we had left León and trudged ten hours through a desert, sun broiling our skin, backpacks breaking our spines.

By the time we reached our first night’s destination, the town of Hospital de Órbigo, my feet had swollen to proportions I’d not imagined possible. Several toes were bruised dark purple and between them painful blisters had emerged. Thank God our B&B was lovely. Our room had a marble shower with a shelf full of soaps and lotions and a wall of pulsing body jets, so I stepped in, turned on cool water, let the jets massage my feet. Maybe with this treatment the swelling would diminish overnight.

No such luck. The next day when Mark and I awoke, my edema was no better. Thus, I had no choice: I forced my feet into my boots, left the laces untied, and hobbled out of town with Mark.

Soon we were winding through cornfields green and golden in the early morning sun. These gave way to woodlands of shady, broad, holm oaks. Here, the path began to climb. Wincing with every step, I began to fall behind. Mark turned and waited at a stream. “Are you okay?”

I shook my head. “My feet are absolutely killing me. Please, just go ahead. I don’t want to feel pressured by your pace. Just check me sporadically.”

Mark nodded and we began to walk. Within minutes I was far behind him. Then the forest opened to mown farmlands scattered with hay bales and cows.

In a field adjacent to the road, a man was sitting on a hay bale. As I approached he stood and came towards me leading dog by a leash. He bore an enormous backpack festooned with a miscellany of items: a rolled pad, blanket, and sleeping bag; a down jacket and canvas hat; a dopp kit and stuffed plastic bag; a walking stick dangling a pot. The dog, too, was bearing a burden, a pannier strapped to its back. The twosome and everything they carried was encrusted with dirt.

The man waved. “Buon giorno! Buon Cammino!”

Italian, my grandparents’ language, one I thankfully spoke.

I looked into his face. Long-haired, brown-eyed, young, he seemed in his mid-twenties, the same age as my son. I smiled. “Sei italiano?”

“Sì!”

And so I met Matteo, who’d walked all the way from Genoa. He began to plod the path beside me, his dog Greta scouting the way. Matteo talked to me nonstop:

“Signora, I see that you’re limping. Are your boots too tight? Feet swell on the Camino from the heat and strain. The trick is to wear shoes a size bigger than usual. At home, I wear 42, but today I’m wearing 43.

“You know, I didn’t plan to be on this Camino. But the Genoa phone company I worked for cut eight workers from full-time to half. Four of us were young bachelors; the others were family men. We young ones quit completely so our colleagues could keep their full-time schedules. How else could they feed their kids?”

“So here I am on the Camino. Of course, I have to do it cheaply. Since the weather’s nice, I sleep outside with Greta. The only problem is bathing. I’m filthy. How I’d love a bath! But the hostels won’t let me use their showers if I don’t pay to stay the night. Cheapskates, that’s what they are!”

Once Jesus told a rich young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor.” These words have long caused me consternation. Are we supposed to give away all?

How relieved I was to read that medieval writer Christina de Pisano had prayed about this question and received a clear response: God doesn’t ask us to give all. He asks us to give what we can, do good works, and refrain from flaunting wealth.

This much I’ve always handled: charitable donations, volunteer work, buying the homeless lunch.

But is it enough? Matteo had given up his job to save his colleagues. He’d also sacrificed his roof. He’d even forfeited his bath.

What had I done for Camille? If all the well-paid people at Mark’s firm had agreed to earn a little less, could we have saved her too? What would it have cost me to try? A hotel star? A scented bubble bath? Pulsing shower jets?

I’m not as brave as Matteo. I’m afraid to give everything. But I can give more than I have in the past.

The boots I’ve been wearing are too tight. It’s time to walk in Matteo’s shoes.

 

Oasis: An Observation from The Way of Saint James

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I almost passed it by.

When the offer came in January, I was too busy teaching college writing. Too busy mentoring a student group. Too busy reading for three book clubs. Too busy writing for a blog. Too busy marketing my memoir. Too busy caring for my family, cat, and home.

Maybe I could do it in the summer. More realistically, maybe in the fall.

But the director of the Mental Health Ministry persisted. She described the new program she envisioned at Seattle’s Saint James Cathedral and hoped I’d facilitate: a weekly creative writing workshop for people suffering from painful life events—the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the effects of abuse, disability, or disease. A workshop where participants could share their stories, order their thoughts, release repressed emotions, begin to heal their grief. A workshop starting February sixth.

To be honest, the prospect was intriguing. For years I’d longed to teach creative writing, something I’d earned a Masters in, something I’d done when I taught high school. How I’d loved teaching teens to write their stories. Doing so had been more priceless than rubies, more rousing than sunshine, more comfortable than fleece.

The high school students and I became close through our writing endeavors—reading, critiquing, affirming, revising until the stories sang. We became a community of colleagues, one that delighted and fulfilled me, one I’d not found a substitute for in the six years since I’d lost that job.

Maybe the cathedral writing group could fill the chasm in my heart that loss had cleaved. But at the time the opportunity was offered, I was overextended, my days packed with obligations from which I couldn’t extricate myself.

Maybe in the summer. Maybe in the fall. The timing simply wasn’t right to make my way to Saint James.

In fact, I’d just made my way to Saint James, although in a very different manner, one not involving teaching in Seattle, but instead perambulating Spain.

El Camino de Santiago—the Way of Saint James—is a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, where according to tradition, the apostle James the Greater is interred. Each year 200,000 pilgrims walk there on a variety of routes. The most travelled is 500 miles long and starts five miles from the Spanish border in the Pyrenean foothills of France, but some pilgrims walk from farther points—Paris, Rome, Munich—others from spots nearer Santiago—Burgos, León, Samos. Last September my husband and I joined them, trekking 200 miles from León.

Walking the Camino is a metaphor for living life. Head sheathed from blazing sun, blisters burning in boots, back bent under heavy pack, to succeed you have to strip possessions to essentials—a single change of clothes, a sleeping sheet and toothbrush, sunscreen and a pair of sturdy shoes—and you have to limit each day’s tasks to a necessary few—walking scores of miles, eating, washing underwear, bathing, sleeping, repacking your bag.

With little to distract you on the way but the crunching of your soles on gravel and the susurration of your breath, you synchronize with an inner rhythm you likely never realized you possessed. That rhythm hypnotizes you. You become so high on endorphins, fresh air, exhaustion, that your mind seems to detachfromyourbody,rise above your head, andhoverinthe ether, enabling you to observe yourself.

You learn that the mistakes you make on the Camino mirror those you make generally in life. And you begin to understand how to avoid them.

Or so it was for me. Take, for example, our first day, when we walked from León to Hospital de Órbigo, a distance of twenty-three miles, a trek of ten hours.

We began early in the morning on Puente Río Bernesga, a Roman bridge that spans a river running through the outskirts of León. After winding through the city suburbs, we came to the open countryside known as the Páramo Leonés. The topography of this region is one of the flattest in Spain, having been generated by alluvial deposits millions of years ago. Hot, dusty, desolate, these dry grasslands bereft of trees and breeze extend as far as you can see.

By the time we’d walked six hours on the trail, my skin was sunburned, my tongue was parched, my legs and back were collapsing. I wanted to quit the Camino. But suddenly we came upon a cornfield traversed by an irrigation channel that brimmed with brightly babbling water. It looked to be everything I needed, a perfect oasis edged by wildflowers, buttressed by a low stone wall, and shaded by a broad Holm oak.

“Mark,” I said to my husband. “I need to sit and rest.”

He looked at his watch. “It’s not time yet. Half-an-hour more. You can do it. It’s only two thirty.”

He was right. We’d scheduled our break for three o’clock. So I heaved my pack higher on my shoulders, grunted, and trudged on.

A mistake I often made in life.

Thirty minutes later, we took our break, the oasis far behind us. Squatting on a dusty roadside in the scathing sun, lizards darting over my boot-tips, flies buzzing round my head, I sipped some water from a plastic bottle and pictured the verdant spot we’d bypassed. I began to cry.

Which is why I decided to teach writing at Saint James beginning in the dead of winter. No, the timing wasn’t perfect. But if I’d waited I’d have missed the chance to do work that’s proved delightful. If I’d delayed I’d have missed becoming part of a group that’s growing close. If I’d passed it by I’d have missed an oasis that’s refreshed me for my other tasks.

Once a man met Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. Jesus said to him, “Come with me,” but the man said, “Let me first go bury my father.”

I hope the man avoided that mistake.

When you encounter an oasis on the way, stop and set down your pack.

 

 

The Shroud of Turin (La Sindone)

SINDONEIf you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could speak for hours. Before I saw it in Italy one Easter, I read several books on it. So I could tell you the Shroud is a linen cloth, three feet wide and fourteen long, that’s marked with faint front and back images—like those of a sepia photo—of a man in burial pose.

Beginning at one end of the fabric and panning lengthwise towards the other, you can see the front of the man’s body: his ankles, shins, knees, and thighs; his hands shielding his groin; his stomach, chest, beard, and face; his tendriled forehead at mid-length.

From there, continuing on, you can see the man’s back: his hair gathered in a ponytail at the nape of his neck; his shoulders, buttocks, hams, and calves; his heels at the far hem.

You suspect the man’s been scourged. Blood-filled back and buttock wounds bring to mind a flagellation by a leather multi-thonged whip, lead pellets tied to tips. You deduce the man’s been crucified. Blood-crusted wrist and ankle wounds suggest an ancient crucifixion, iron nail shafts rammed though flesh and bone by pounding rough-hewn heads.

You theorize the man’s been crowned with brambles. Blood has trickled through his locks from myriad scalp and forehead punctures. You surmise the man’s been speared. Serum has puddled at his waist from a right-rib, lance-shaped wound.

So you guess, if you’ve read the Gospels, that the Shroud is Jesus’ burial cloth, the sudarium John and Peter found in their teacher’s vacant tomb. And you grasp why it’s the world’s most-guarded relic—displayed only once each twenty years—and why scholars debate its authenticity, some proclaiming it a miracle, others declaring it a fake.

If you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could summarize its history. Some experts place it in Jerusalem in AD 33 and chronicle an almost gapless jaunt:

To Edessa in AD 34, where Christians hid it from vandals in the city’s stone surrounding walls, to Constantinople in AD 944, where the Byzantine emperor raised it banner-like in his palace church.

To Athens, Greece, in AD 1204, when Fourth Crusaders sailed into Byzantium and seized it with the empire’s Christian relics, to Lirey, France, in 1354, when a French knight took it for himself.

To Savoy, France, in 1453, when the knight’s heiress gave it to a duke in exchange for a country castle, to Chambéry in 1502, where the duke placed it in his royal chapel behind an iron grill.

There, the cloth remained, folded in a bolted, silver coffer, until a fire swept the chapel in 1532. Hell-bent to save the Shroud, two Franciscans doused the reliquary, summoned a smith to pry the hasps, unfurled and inspected the Shroud.

Melted silver had singed a folded corner. Water had seeped through the fibers. But except for a series of scorch marks burned through to holes at intervals, the image was unmarred, and Poor Clare nuns patched up the holes.

Then, in 1578, Milan’s cardinal planned a pilgrimage to the Shroud, so the cloth was moved to Turin, Italy, to spare him a hike across the Alps. Today, the Shroud remains in Turin’s Duomo, out-of-sight for decades at a time, in an airtight, bulletproof case.

If you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could recount the scholarly debates. Despite the propositions of their colleagues, some historians dispute the Shroud’s existence before its debut in medieval France.

Radiologists endorse the naysayers—their carbon-14 studies date the cloth to the early 1300s; they claim the image and bloodstains are paint, a counterfeiter’s work. Forensic scientists support the yaysayers—they find no pigments on the fibers, just human blood and serum; they charge the radiologists with sampling a Poor Clare patch.

Textile experts back the devotees—they say the Shroud’s herringbone weave was prized in Caesar’s time and unused in the Middle Ages. Botanists agree with them—they say the Shroud is strewn with flower prints and pollen from Israeli mums extinct before medieval times.

But the nonbelievers are diehards, determined to prove the Shroud a fraud by reproducing it themselves: They’ve tried Byzantine tempera painting, medieval photography, printing bas-reliefs. They’ve attempted hot statue wrapping, line engraving, and vapography. They’ve tried fungal and bacterial methods, non-enzymatic browning, singlet oxygen techniques. They’ve undertaken fabric scorching, flash irradiation, and electrostatic fields.

Then came an aero-optics expert who thought he’d proved the Shroud authentic, settling the debate: his NASA image analyzer showed the Shroud plots a 3-D elevation of a tortured human male. But skepticism persists, although no technology we know of—no natural process, no artistic or photographic method—can make an image like the Shroud’s, one that plots 3-D.

So if you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I’d have plenty to say.

But most of it is straw.

Because there’s something that leaves me speechless, something I didn’t read in books, something that didn’t strike me till I stood in the dark cathedral among a praying crowd and stared at the backlit Shroud suspended on a wall before me, so close I could have touched its fibers, the imprint, the blood.

That something is this: Jesus was a man, a man no bigger than my son, one man among the billions who have lived or ever will. And one spring evening long ago, he pulled his hair into a ponytail to prepare bread and wine for his disciples, as my son pulls on a favorite t-shirt to set out beer and nachos for his friends.

As if it were an ordinary evening.

But it wasn’t an ordinary evening; it was the last one of his life.

And when his mother saw his broken corpse, one she hoped to never see—as I hope to never see my son’s—she tossed a few chrysanthemums upon it, covered it with the Shroud, and left the tomb with her grief.

Then, when all was quiet, a flash of light, a flutter of fabric. An image to hold onto until eternity.

Risen Words

redchasmA book was sleeping inside me. It was somewhere deep and warm, somewhere just beneath my heart. At first, the words free-floated lightly, whispering so I could barely hear them. Next they somersaulted nimbly, mesmerizing me. Then they dropkicked, demanding their release.

Days, weeks, and months went by. Still, I did not begin to write the book. A book takes years from your life. Each day you have to stand upon a cliff, take a breath, plunge into the chasm. You have to hit rock to make the words rise. You have to push friends and family to the margins, shirk the world to live in the mind.

What’s more, I’d just finished a memoir, peddled it to more than fifty agents, received rejections from all. And though I’d found a small, independent press willing to take a risk on me, I’d been warned, given our lack of celebrity, the memoir likely wouldn’t sell. How could I justify another book, waste the future after the past? Better cook dinner for my family or for the homeless downtown.

No, the book was a stupid idea.

But the words kept kicking inside.

I talked to a friend about it. She said sometimes when a project is obsessing us, it’s a sign that God is calling us to task, a signal of our vocation.

Vocation. It’s an early Christian concept that’s been secularized by many. The essence is this: God calls every one of us to love and serve our neighbors in a special way. The work involved is our calling. While a few of us may hear God call audibly, most must learn to perceive his voice in the convergence of four signs: We desire to do certain work. The effort brings us joy. The work serves a beneficent end. Unbiased sources say we’re gifted at the tasks.

To perceive signs of a calling, we must look deep within ourselves, discern how the spirit moves within us, scrutinize the world around us, analyze the effects our actions cause. When in doubt, we should pray for clearer signs.

So, one night, I climbed into bed, burrowed next to my husband, who’d already turned out the lights. Pulling blankets to chin, I closed my eyes, fixed them on my inner world. I knew I longed to keep writing, knew I delighted in the process, even when it wasn’t going smoothly, even when the words didn’t seem to come. But I wasn’t sure that I was gifted or that my work served anyone but me. To find out, I would have to turn to prayer.

In truth, I’ve never found prayer easy. Through much of my adulthood, God has been a rainbow trout to me; I grasp him for a moment, then he slips, glistening pink and silver, from my hands. How could pray when I wasn’t sure that God was real?

What’s more, my petition seemed crazy: There are seven billion people on the planet, but hey, Creator of the Universe, let’s have a chat, you and me. No, it’s not about war, disease, or famine; instead, I’d like to pitch a book.

As for the notion God was calling me to write: God could jingle Anne Lamott. Why would he bother with me?

Still, I prayed. “God, should I write this book?” Then I listened. But, all I heard was my husband breathing sleep-deep, so I curled into fetal position, felt the flush of my foolishness.

Foolish: How I felt that night, having imagined even for a moment that God would speak to me.

Foolish: How I felt three days later, when my memoir was released at 1,745,362, and falling, on Amazon’s book rank list.

Foolish: How I felt two weeks after that, when the book received a scathing one-star review.

Foolish:  How I felt, having fancied for an instant that God was calling me to write when the world was screaming, STOP!

So I stopped. I turned off my computer, smothered every word that rose. I’ll never write anther book. In fact, I’ll never write another word.

That’s when I lost myself.

Mornings when my daughter called me, I no longer blew her kisses through the phone. Instead my mind hissed at her: Pest! Don’t you know I need to work?

Afternoons when I was with my college students, I no longer assured them they could write. Instead, my brain chastised them: Dunces! You should have learned where commas go in second grade!

Over supper when my husband spoke of cycling, I no longer tracked riders or the routes. Instead I thought: No, not crankshafts and gears! What a flipping bore!

Then came the night I asked my son to wash a pan he’d just used to make an omelet. When he said, “Just a minute, Mom, relax!” I shrieked, “You can go to hell!”

At those words, I winced and caught my breath: What was happening to me?

Then I realized, I’d just received a sign.

If God calls each of us to love and serve, we must do what enables us to do so. No one questions that we must eat, get fresh air, and exercise. But we also have to do what brings us joy, makes us feel alive, opens up our hearts, whether it’s singing, painting, gardening, skiing, or any of a million things. If we don’t, we become testy and embittered, spreading hostility rather than love.

Maybe I’m not a great writer. Maybe my words will never lighten someone’s load. But I know that if I don’t write them, I’m no good to anyone at all.

So here I sit at my computer, called to let these words rise.