Tag Archives: love

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?

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.

The Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago)

IMG_1996_2My Uncle Jimmy died last fall at the age of ninety. Born in Sicily, he immigrated to New York when young and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was the husband of my aunt for sixty-one years, the frolicsome father of my two cousins, a regular part of my life until I married and moved away.

I can still see my uncle clearly as he was in January 1994. The way his brown eyes sparkled. The way his thick hair swept back from his forehead. The way he arm-wrestled my four-year-old son to laughter, easing tears caused by my father’s death.

That was the last time I saw my Uncle Jimmy. Almost twenty years ago.

On the day my Uncle Jimmy died, I didn’t even know that he was ill. He’d lived in Florida for two decades and I in Seattle for three. Through those years our correspondence was limited, consisting only of Christmas and Easter cards with a few scribbled pleasantries. Some years, even cards were lacking.

No, on the day my uncle died, I wasn’t at his bedside hugging him. Instead, I was in a Spanish cathedral embracing a very different Jimmy, not one of flesh and bones, but of gold-plate and jewels, the bust of Saint James, apostle of Jesus, whom Spaniards call Santiago.

According to Christian tradition, after Jesus’ resurrection, James traveled to the Iberian Peninsula to spread the Gospel. Upon returning to Jerusalem, he was beheaded, becoming the first Christian martyr. His acolytes carried his corpse to Palestine’s coast and placed it on an unpiloted boat that miraculously crossed the Mediterranean, passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, and landed on the shore of Spain among the fiord-like rías of Galicia.

In Galicia, the body was buried in a small shrine and the town of Santiago grew around it. By the twelfth century, an immense Romanesque cathedral had been built over James’ tomb and was attracting half a million pilgrims each year. People walked there from all over Europe, hundreds and hundreds of miles, crossing mountains, valleys, plains, and rivers, risking starvation, dehydration, injury, raids by bandits, death. For them, the pilgrimage was an enactment of the spiritual journey to God and the hardships were tests of faith.

Today, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually walk El Camino de Santiago, The Way of Saint James. Heads swathed from blazing sun, blisters bursting in boots, backs bent under packs dangling emblematic scallop shells, they now come from all around the world and include believers and non-believers alike. During the last two weeks of my Uncle Jimmy’s life, my husband and I were two of them.

The Way is very much like leapfrog. Though the most travelled route is 500 miles long and starts five miles from the Spanish border in the Pyrenean foothills of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, some pilgrims walk from farther points—Rome, Zagreb, Warsaw—others from spots nearer Santiago—Pamplona, Leon, Sarria.

All along The Way, pilgrims encounter each other, walk together for a distance, talk in spontaneous pidgins of English-Spanish-French-German-Italian. They lose each other at rest stops or to slow or quicken their pace, then rediscover each other at intervals of minutes, hours, days.  On the road, in restaurants, and in refugios, they bond through a cycle of challenges, triumphs, chow, chat.

We spied our first fellow peregrinos in an otherwise empty hotel breakfast room on the morning we set out from Leon. They were sitting at another table, a chic Spanish-speaking couple in brand new hiking gear. Finishing our pastries and coffees, the four of us stood, heaved our packs, smiled—neither my husband nor I speak Spanish—went outside and found the route. We walked neck in neck for hours. When the road split, we turned left and they turned right.

Two days later we recognized them in a restaurant in Rabanal, heard them speaking English to another couple, introduced ourselves. By the end of our conversation, we’d come to know them as Miguel and Liliana from Colombia. By Villafranca, we were dining with them, sharing insights on how to deal with blisters, manage backpacks, parent children, face midlife.

Likewise, in bits and pieces on The Way, we came to know Kyung Mi from Seoul, who clicked her walking sticks on gravel, offered me a parasol when the sun grew hot. And the group of students from the Catholic Newman Center at University of Washington, who early mornings shared the glow of headlamps and song-filled sunrise prayers. And Matteo from Genoa, who climbed a mountain pass with me, insisting I practice my Italian to distract me from my bleeding feet.

When pilgrims reach Santiago, they embrace in front of the cathedral. Strangers only weeks before, they now regard themselves as friends. Together they enter the cathedral and walk their last steps together up stairs that lead behind the altar. There they hug the gilded statue of Saint James, then descend to the Pilgrims’ Mass.

At Mass I gazed around me at hundreds of peregrinos, many now dear. People who had walked into my life, touched my heart, and would soon depart. People like so many others—my parents and grandparents, lost neighbors, colleagues, friends—who had once been marvelously present but had vanished due to distance, distractions, death.

People like my Uncle Jimmy.

I wanted to put my arms around them, all the people of my life. Those I’d known well and those I wished I’d known better. Those here and now. Those there and then. I wanted to hold them forever in a way that Facebook can’t.

Towards the end of the Pilgrim’s Mass, eight red-robed attendants launched the botafumeiro, a massive silver incense dispenser hung by a sturdy rope that swings an enormous arc across the church transept. At the first oscillation, the organ began to boom as every eye in the cathedral lifted to heaven with the fragrant smoke.

Then I understood. The Way doesn’t end in Santiago. And if we continue on it, loving those who cross our path, we can hope to be united with each other in God’s realm.

 

Photo by Vincent Samudovsky