True This…

Yesterday afternoon, when I got home, I opened my car door and immediately was washed over with the smell of cow manure. We live across the road from a large pasture and at this time of the year, there is a lot of cattle grazing there. The breeze was blowing just right—talk about “in your face!”

That reminded me of something else. Last week, Sherod and I were in the den watching TV in the late evening. Although it is Mo’s habit to go have a nap before going to bed, he hadn’t done so yet; he was draped across Sherod’s feet. Tux was snuggled into her favorite cushions on the sofa. All of a sudden, she was like something out of a cartoon, seeming to leap straight up, right out of a deep sleep. She began to bark ferociously and Mo followed suit. They kept running back and forth between the back door and the windows in the den and they would. not. stop. I finally decided to let them out and as soon as I opened that door, I knew what had them so upset: skunk. Lord have mercy, the smell. In that split second after opening the door, those two had gone tearing out and now, my fear was they’d get sprayed and then what would we do???!!! The skunk must have skedaddled fast enough to avoid having to let loose that smell.

The next day, I stood and talked to Mark, our friend who keeps his horses, Gus and Jack, with us. He comes over to feed them regularly so we stood in the pole barn for a quick visit while the horses ate their oats. Mark worked for the state as a biologist until he retired and is our local expert on wildlife; when I told him about the night before, he just kept saying, “Boy, you lucked out! They say try this and try that if your dogs get sprayed by a skunk but I am here to tell you there ain’t nothing you can do because it is absorbed into the skin and into the hair and it’s just nasty.”

Then he said that I should tell Sherod he needed to reconsider his armadillo trapping plan. For several months, our back yard has grown increasingly pock-marked, with small holes about 4 inches across and maybe 3-4 inches deep. That back lawn has been beautiful in the past and it has been making my spouseman nuts to see all the damage to that pristine lawn of his. He decided the holes looked like the work of an armadillo so he set up a trap. In case you don’t know, armadillos are blind so you set up these two by fours in a V-shape with the trap at the point. The armadillo ventures into the V, doesn’t know to turn around and ends up getting stuck in the trap.

A few months ago, there was a big old armadillo in the trap who (we thought) benefitted from our mushy hearts and was relocated far down the road in a pasture not close to any homes. When we told Mark what Sherod had done, Mark with his wildlife experience told us an armadillo that’s moved like that can’t make it in a new location and by law in our state you are supposed to kill it. I’d been sweating the thought of a new armadillo discovering a whole new meaning to finding oneself at a dead end. Turns out, skunks love to dig for grubs and Mark thinks there’s a good chance at least some of the digging is the work of the skunk. Unlike armadillos, skunks do ok in a relocation program so Mark suggested a can of cat food in the trap. We’ll see how that goes. If the Mallowman gets sprayed, he’s sleeping in the pole barn!

I don’t imagine I’m different than most everyone else: we become habituated to the space we occupy, take it for granted, and when newness has worn off, stop realizing just where we are. Now and then, by God’s grace, we are caught up short, made to stop and see, really see, where we are. So this week, I am mightily aware, can say with absolute certainty, “true this: I am now country.”

Old Dispensations

Yesterday, as I prepared our biweekly church newsletter, I found myself returning to “Journey of the Magi,” the poem by TS Eliot I first read when I was 20 and still have read at least once yearly for 40 years. Today, the description of life for the Magi when they returned to their own homes is especially poignant as I reflect on the Christmas season ending today. 

It wasn’t that hard to fall into the old rhythms of planning and preparing for Christmas. One of my deepest joys as a priest right now is my partnership with Randy Foster, organist-choir director at Holy Comforter. It has opened an especially commodious and grace-filled space to explore ways in which liturgy and music go deep, help our congregation find its place in the presence of the mystery of God. That has not changed. The pandemic has not undone the delight I find as we prepare for worship during Advent and Christmas. 

At home, I did a lot more cooking, decorating, wrapping, preparing, than I’ve done in years. The work was all about connective tissue; how, after so much isolation, I needed to remember I am connected to my past, to our little homestead, to my parish, my friends, my family. All of that was meaningful. I also never stopped feeling uneasy.

Today, I am taking a day of ‘in place retreat’ here at the farm. Jan Richardson, a woman whose wisdom I cherish, publishes resources for a “Women’s Christmas Retreat” each year.” It was from her that I learned that in Ireland and other places, the 12th day of Christmas is an opportunity for women to celebrate and regather themselves for the start of a new year.  If you are interested in this resource, rich with reflections, poetry and provocative questions, check out this link

I’m trying make sense of the uneasiness I could not shake off all season. I see some bits more clearly. Sherod and I give each other very, very few gifts these days. Others are so very generous. On Christmas day, after we had opened all the gifts, I was overwhelmed by the number of gift bags, paper, and ribbon I gathered up. I have folded as much of it as I could, will recycle it next year but that will still leave me with way more than I need in the foreseeable future. It isn’t about being an ingrate. In this age when the earth is suffering to the point of death from our excesses, how might we show love and generosity in new ways? How do we get there from here, in an economy that depends on our consumption, our always needing more.

A couple of relatives sent us gift baskets—the kinds that come with all manner of celebratory goodies. Again, the gratitude. Again, that food that tastes delicious and is not particularly nutritious, and is also poison my body can’t handle well, while I am endlessly tempted. 

I don’t mean to go down a rat hole, and especially, I don’t want to sound like I am incapable of joy, incapable of celebration, incapable of receiving the love offered to me. And I was and am so uneasy because the world has shifted, has changed fundamentally for me. I know so much more now about the ways in which “old dispensations,” old ways of moving through seasons in unexamined time did way more harm than I gave myself time to consider.

There’s more. I can barely stand to read the news these days. As priest and pastor of a church, I’ve always been very careful about how, when, and where, I express my political views. Mostly, in the past, I have avoided falling into the kinds of political binaries that shut down conversation and close off possibilities for work and relationships. That is still where I prefer to be. But the Day of Epiphany, when we see revealed and behold, when we are filled with wonder, in the presence of God’s love made flesh, this day, will also always be the day this immigrant’s heart began to break, and continues to, in the shadow of the storming of the Capitol. 

A significant number of my fellow Americans (some of them very, very close kin) and I see the world, the choices, and the possibilities for our country, in diametrically opposed ways. It isn’t just that the old dispensations no longer give me comfort and a sense of safety. It is that, as one of the Magi says in Eliot’s poem, reflecting on that journey to Bethlehem:

“I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”

I experience loved ones, neighbors, so many others, as “alien people” clutching a way of seeing the world that only feels death-dealing from where I stand. This Christmas there was birth, for sure. And now I am not sure I can tell the difference between birth and death as I bid it farewell on this day.

Caminho de Santiago-An Update of Sorts

The Party That Wasn’t

The only way to talk about my pilgrimage on the Portuguese Coastal Route of the Caminho de Santiago starts with two small stories.

Early in the Morning
Two winters ago, my sweet dog Tuxie needed to be groomed. Her appointment fell on a particularly cold day and her haircut was especially short. That evening, she was obviously chilly and at bedtime, we invited her to sleep on our bed. She was pressed tight against me the whole night long. Somehow, the invitation became permanent.

Every day, somewhere between 4:30 and 6:00 am, Miss Tux begins to stir and wakes me up. I don’t move, trying to sneak in a bit more sleep. She is patient for about 5 minutes, then stands up and shakes herself vigorously. Again, I play possum. Next, she drapes herself across me, not doing anything more than that, except her tail wags so hard the whole bed shakes. When I finally give up, I scratch the bottom sheet of my bed to let Tux know I’m coming, then grab her for little bit of “woob a@# and wrastlin”.

Early on, that was the extent of the routine. But then, Mo, the Ying to her Yang, decided to join in by coming around from the other side of his humans’ bed, to breathe right into my face, his tail thumping as it hits the wall close to my bed. The best I dare do for my 90 lb. friend is scratch behind his ears with one hand while I mess with Tux with the other. Just a bit of that is more than enough for me and I say, “Let’s get up!” They bound out of the room and go sit eagerly in the kitchen, waiting for me to serve them breakfast. The ritual has several additional parts, all of them overflowing with the sheer exuberance and joy with which these two beautiful creatures greet each day.

The Past 10 Days
More than a month ago, things were looking pretty good. The pandemic seemed to be easing up enough that I did something I’d never done before. I invited the vestry and staff, and their significant others, to come for a Christmas gathering at Sherod’s and my home. It didn’t take long for my mama’s spirit to take possession of me, churning out the detailed to-do lists, cooking, cleaning, totally enjoying the thought of being able to have a party. There were layers of meaning in the work. I decided to make Swedish sweets for dessert, a small nod to my heritage. The last time I prepared any of them was a couple of years before my dad died. Once again that brought home to me that the previous generation of my family is gone. There’s a strange sense of unmooring that comes with that insight.

By Saturday evening, everything was just like I wanted it. And for days, I had grown more and more uneasy hearing about the Omicron variant. The party was the next day (yesterday) and the temperature would be very low so my carefully prepared plan for adequate ventilation would not work. There were any number of other reasons as well, but the long and short of it was, I no longer felt it was safe and responsible to go forward with the party. It was awful to make that decision. I don’t regret it.

I tell both these stories because together, they capture my sense of life without a future. I struggle these days as I think about that pilgrimage I’d been so fired up about; I don’t want to set myself up for disappointment. On numerous occasions, I’ve gone into the Delta webpage to buy my airline ticket and backed off after going as far as choosing my seats for the flights. You can get refundable tickets but they cost a fortune and it’s not clear that a Covid outbreak is considered a reason for refunds now. I continue to work out and pay attention to the ways in which I can be in the best shape possible, but not so much because of the pilgrimage, but because it is something I can do now to contribute goodness to this crazy broken world of ours.

There is a new, low-level anxiety that goes with that sense of no future. It isn’t paralyzing but it does take energy from other places in my life. I try to remind myself that having no future is actually at the core of human experience—you can look ahead, you can dream, you can plan and then, life can take such totally unexpected turns. There is something important to learn about that truth in this time when the virus insists on showing us we are not in charge. A few days ago, I’d been moping around about how hard this all is. The very next morning, when Tux draped herself on me, filling my very being with giggles, I had a moment of utter clarity. The daily morning gift of joy I receive from Mo and Tux makes me live here, makes me live now in the best way possible. I can aim for the pilgrimage and still hold it very lightly. Maybe having less of a horizon is not so bad at all.

A tiny story of holiness

I was able to bring Chinese takeout Ito BARC for María on Thursday, as the rest of her household was preparing for dinner. The twelve women residents arrive back from their day programs around 4 each afternoon. There are meds to take, showers to have, clothes to fold, for those who are able. Others simply sit in one or the other of the common spaces. Starting that set of routines is one transition and the second one moves them into the evening meal.

This is normally a period of contained chaos—I can only speak for our own experience with our daughter but transitions are always tough for her and it seems like that holds true for the rest of her housemates. MarÍa is one of the most functional members of the house and most of the other residents are non-verbal. A couple, though unable to speak, do vocalize, sometimes very loudly. 

The staff, women who mostly come from Caribbean islands, are  totally engaged and alert during this time. They coax, direct, challenge, redirect, compliment, have micro-conversations, with 12 people with varying degrees of need, ability and internal resources. This all goes down in a relatively short amount of time. I can only imagine how tired the women who serve the residents of A House must be when they get done with their work. And what always gives me a knot in my throat is how affectionate and genuine they are with such vulnerable and complicated people.

Thursday evening was no different than many other nights I’ve been there, except there was an audio speaker pouring out Christmas music.  I’m not sure if this was a Spotify playlist, or a radio station, or what.  All I know is, after “Here Comes Santa Claus,” the tenor and tone changed dramatically. An orchestra started playing and the voice of a soloist intoned the first notes of “O Holy Night.” María’s home, A House, became unexpectedly quiet and then, the staff and residents spontaneously began to sing along with the voice coming from the speaker. You had to be there to observe the non-verbal residents sing as they were able. Some quietly kept the beat with their bodies, other croaked or hummed along, no real ‘melody’ as we would define it, but undoubtedly, a song. It was all of them. Every single one of those twenty or so women sang their hearts out.

I was spellbound. What was it about that piece that knit this group of people together like this?  How astounding, to watch music not just transcend limitation, but transform it into something holy, and pure and just extraordinarily beautiful. This is incarnation. This is what it means to be human.

There will be signs

“Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth” (Lk 21:25)

As the week ended, we began to hear about a new Corona virus variant of concern being flagged by scientists in South Africa. For a moment, the thought raced through my mind: “Is this then, how inexorably, the human population is decimated, how we face into the end? A virus so wily and strong that it outruns us once and always?” I quickly dismissed my overly dramatic notion but I would lie if I said it didn’t leave a lingering sense of uneasiness.

Then, it was time to start working on my sermon and for the third week, the Gospel reading was all about apocalyptic times. In a space that already feels so apocalyptic, the notion that there are signs all around us to read and understand about how it is that the Kingdom of God is ushered in with finality, was also deeply unsettling. Am I staying alert enough? Am I watching for signs with eyes of love? As so much feels broken, even shattered, beyond repair, can I truly put my trust in the assurance that cataclysmic events are “but the beginning of birth pangs” as God does something new? I kept looking for a ‘handle,’ an entry point that would allow me to find what I can only describe as the beating, life-giving heart of the Gospel passage for the week. I had a few glimmers of what that might be but nothing to build with. I’ve learned to trust (at least up to a point) that I will be led where I need to go for a Sunday sermon, even if that doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like.

With all that a faint, persistent hum inside me, I got up Saturday and made sure I was wearing clericals before I headed into Montgomery for a busy morning. On the 21st of this month, Ms. Helen Louise Miles died. Ms. Helen had worked in the kitchen of Jeff Davis High School in Montgomery during the week for decades. And for over 30 years, she cooked breakfast on Sunday mornings for the people of Holy Comforter. I never met her–she’d moved to Georgia long before I came to Montgomery, but had heard a tiny little bit about her. When I shared with the parish that she had died earlier on the 21st., what I can only describe as a tremulous sigh went up from the nave. Ms. Helen hadn’t only served the parish well for all those years. She had been love, light, and life to many, many, many folks.

I would not be able to attend the funeral but there was going to be a visitation and viewing before the service. I needed to pay my respects on behalf of the parish. I punched in the address to the funeral home and headed there, wondering if the street was one I’d heard about on the news a few weeks earlier. Getting close, I had to turn off Day St. on Hill St. At the first stop sign, I would need to turn left onto Jeff Davis Ave. When I got to the second street that intersected with Hill, my GPS announced it was time to get on Jeff Davis. As I turned, I looked up long enough up to see one of those innocuous green street signs we all know so well. Except it was no longer Jeff Davis Ave. It was Fred Grey Ave. Last month, the street was renamed in honor of the civil rights attorney who grew up on that very street and represented Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. The change was not—still is not—without controversy. You can read about that here.

I stopped the car and looked up again, with goose bumps all over, tears in my eyes. I had seen a segment on the local evening news about this change, had been moved that the change was approved by White folks as well as Black on the Montgomery City Council. I drove on to the funeral home, stepped into the chapel and stood before Ms. Helen’s open casket to pray. Ms. Helen, now a thin, tiny dried leaf of a self, was ready to fly away, but before she did, this place of her last repose was on a street that now remembered, not the president of the Confederacy but a man who fought for the rights of people like her.

Right there. On the corner of two streets in a tucked away and off the beaten path kind of place in Montgomery, I was invited into the Gospel. Jesus said, “There will be signs…Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” God knows—race relations, civil rights, violence, so much is achingly wrong in this city where I serve as a priest. The resistance to a small change like this one is still mean and ferocious. There is still so, so much not yet reconciled or redeemed. But even so. Here. Now. On the most ordinary looking of street signs there it was. A sign. An Advent glimpse of God’s Kingdom breaking in. We must stand up. Raise our heads. See. Redemption is drawing near.

Things broken, things repaired and transcendent II

Not long before the anniversary of my dad’s death, I was in the small space where I work out on my DE (I’m not real fond of it and the “E” stands for elliptical so I imagine you can figure out what the D stands for…). It was already dark outside and Sherod was watching TV so when I was done working out, I headed back to the den to sit with him. 

As soon as I walked in, I saw he had a very pained expression on his face and immediately launched into an apology. He’d almost tripped over Mo, our dog, close to the coffee table in the den. As he reached out to prevent himself from falling, he knocked off a ceramic bowl and broke it. The bowl was one of those extraordinarily bittersweet remnants of my childhood and my parents’ home. It was made by a well-known Swedish artist, a fine piece, and so beautiful to me, it made my heart ache when I looked at it.

The bowl had graced my mother’s living room, probably the most paradoxical space in our home in Cali.  It was where you could see how my grandmother Vera, with her French training in interior design, had helped shape my mom’s aesthetic. The living room was gracious, filled with fine furniture, and sunlight, and lovely things. It was also a space we were only allowed into on Christmas Eve.  My brothers and I never dared enter that room otherwise, though I remember standing looking in, always taken by its beauty, both so intensely familiar and so far removed from the day-to-day realities of life. The ceramic bowl was always close to one of the edges of the glass table and I can still see the whole room in my mind’s eye all these years later, and how everything seemed to fit together so perfectly.

In 2015, when it became clear that Dad was reaching the point where he needed more help and support than he had in Panamá, when he made the move to Lowndesboro, he brought very little with him. My mom had inherited a fine collection of colonial Latin American art and had a lot of fine antique furniture. All of that landed in a consignment shop in the town where Dad lived, Boquete, and who knows where any of it is now. But Dad brought the bowl with him, and asked me to put it in my living room. 

Now, that piece so loaded down with history and nostalgia and meaning, was broken. When I saw the pieces, I just sobbed. I know it was another round of grieving, another way so much of aging continues to be about subtraction rather than addition. I started to live with that reality 10 years ago and it still has not ended.

Then, as I reflected on this new loss the next day on my way to work, still tearing up, I remembered the wonderful Japanese notion of Kintsugi, a way of transcending brokenness by repairing a broken piece of pottery or ceramic, gluing the pieces back together with lacquer mixed with gold dust. The repair is not concealed but celebrated, adds further beauty to a piece. I thought perhaps I could figure out a way to do that.

I began to do the research during my lunch break and had actually found a source for that special lacquer on Etsy. I would order some because the bowl was broken into 3 or 4 large pieces and doing that meant I’d be able to give it to my niece one day, with the story of the way in which perfection is not necessarily what matters most. The “imperfections” tell about the layers of story that keep adding to my life even when I am so used to thinking (and feeling a little bit sorry for myself) ‘subtraction, all of it is subtraction.’ It really isn’t. 

When I got home, I headed to the den and as I walked by the dining room table, there was the bowl, glued back together, perhaps a little awkwardly, but nonetheless, a broken piece made whole. Sherod had worked hard on it all morning and apologized that he hadn’t been able to make the repairs seamless and invisible. This was another kind of Kintsugi—perhaps not as pretty the one you do with gold lacquer, but one that is infinitely more valuable, a gift of love and an effort to make amends.  The bowl is back in its place. I stop to feast my eyes on it often.

Today I’m in Charlotte, NC visiting my cousin and her family. We’ve been looking through old family pictures, ones that date back more than a hundred years. Our family has known its fair share of brokenness, and we are all patched and glued back together, shattered as our lives have been over and over again. This is just another way I am reminded what it means to me personally to say, “we are people of the resurrection.”

Ours

Our House

It’s a red-letter day at the Lindahl-Mallow’s. I just paid off our mortgage. For the first time in our marriage, we are completely debt-free. It took longer than I’d hoped and, be that as it may, we have careful plans to do everything in our power to stay that way. The relief I feel has so many parts to it. Too often now, I read the news, listen to our leaders, see so much suffering, and believe our country–the world itself, is a very slow-moving train wreck.  Not having debt, having some land where we can grow things, knowing how that works, gives me some reassurance about our capacity to carry on even in very hard times.  If all we do is become more be self-sustaining, I want to believe we will do our part to try to change the death-dealing course our world seems hell-bent on following. There is a whole new meaning to ‘ a lightness of being’ this Friday afternoon… 

Camden, Gees Bend, and Journeys


Black Eyed Susans in Wilcox County, Alabama

Every day is an adventure when you are a parish priest. Earlier this year, Holy Comforter received a wonderfully generous gift from a sister parish, St. Paul’s, Carlowville. We have an old van that allows us to transport food in bulk from the Montgomery Food Bank once a week to support our feeding ministries. I have driven our van a couple of times with teeth rattling and my heart in my mouth. It was scary enough that I wanted nothing more than to shut my eyes tight and step on the accelerator to get there already. St. Paul’s wanted to help us buy a new van. Then, one of our parishioners who has a tremendous amount of experience writing grants put in an application for one of the Covid recovery grants provided by our state. We received the full amount we applied for. We had what we needed to buy a van!

The thing was—there were no secondhand vans to be had. None. Anyone who’s been in the market for a used vehicle this year knows what I am talking about. We agreed we’d sit tight and wait—praying to all the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist saints for our old faithful van to hold on. As the day was ending on Thursday, one of the parishioners who was instrumental in us receiving the gift from St Paul’s texted me. She’d found me a van through a friend and car dealer in Camden. A flurry of pictures followed, all of them looking really promising. The window to jump on this opportunity was small and several pieces had to be put in place, all while our wonderful parish administrator has a bad case of shingles. It certainly was a zingy-kind of exciting!

Enough fell in place to find me driving down to Camden on Friday morning. Camden is the birthplace of Jeff Sessions and the county seat of Wilcox County. It is also a river town that’s experiencing something of a revival downtown. To get there, I drove for an hour past bank after bank of dazzling Black-eyed Susans, aflame in the sunlight. The van is great, the vestry has done its due diligence and approved the purchase ; Now all that’s left is to wire money on Monday and figure out how to get the van up to Montgomery.

This was not my first visit to Camden. In fact, soon after we moved up here, we took some friends to a place across the Alabama River. Gees Bend is where the river folds on itself so there is a relatively small peninsula that became world famous in the late 70’s when “The Quilts of Gees Bend” were discovered. The first time we set out to find it, we drove and drove and drove through back country roads until we finally got to a little spit of land that felt like it was at the end of the world, so cut off and isolated from what people like I know of life. The quilts and quilting were amazing and then, to top it all off, we discovered there was a ferry we could take that would carry us across the Alabama River to Camden. I have never met a boat ride I didn’t love and this one was magical.

Gees Bend Ferry Docked in Camden

What I didn’t know was that, like so much else in Alabama, that ferry had a complicated history. After the Voting Rights Act became law, the women of Gees Bend went all out to get people from their small community registered to vote. They would have to do so in Camden. And because the times were what they were, as the first elections they could vote in came close, the ferry was closed down, stopped running between Gees Bend and Camden, making it much, much more difficult for people to get to the voting booth. The people of Gees Bend did what they had to do—drive, ride or walk 40 miles each way, to and from Camden on election day. They had a few mules they used to work the hardscrabble red clay of Alabama and older folks got to ride the mules to get to vote. This all brought a lot of national attention, and even a visit from Martin Luther King.

And then the unthinkable happened on April 4th of 1968. When the family and close friends of Dr. King planned his funeral, they remembered the mules of Gees Bend. It was those mules that pulled the simple farm wagon that carried Martin Luther King’s casket down the streets of Atlanta.

There are so many kinds of journeys; some of them are so brutally hard and so remarkable for what they teach me about grit, determination and what being human really looks like. My ride to Camden, with a quick stop at the Gees Bend Ferry dock, was so easy and pleasant. The only hardship I encountered was having to get my tires checked because the pressure warning light came on while I was there. And ever since Friday, all I can think about is the journey, the walking, not for the sake or pleasure of walking; some lives don’t afford that luxury. Walking to cast a vote.

Things I’d Forgotten, Things I Learned

Lake Martin

I had forgotten a lot of things. I had forgotten that it isn’t just the path that means something on a hiking trail. It’s also about the marks on trees along the way. Yesterday, when I went on my first monthly hike on the John B. Scott Forever Wild Trail, there were places where it looked like there were three plausible directions the path could take. That’s when looking down was not enough—I had to look up, look ahead. Trail markers are a remarkably kind gift. I had forgotten there are an infinite number of small details to see when there is time to walk slowly and walking carefully is a necessity. There were beautiful little flowers all along the way. A gentle breeze blew along most of the trail and lots of leaves danced and did their pirouettes headed to the ground.

And then there were the smells. Part of the trail follows the shoreline of Lake Martin. Before I’d even seen it, I could smell the swampy terrain that I was getting to. Over and over again, I stopped to enjoy that loamy scent that’s part of any wilderness trail. It wasn’t exactly like the scent on the Tahoe Rim Trail but close enough to be recognizable. A few times, I got a whiff of a flower of some sort. I felt almost giddy, reminded that hiking is such a celebration of our incarnate being.

There were also new things to learn. Last time I went on a serious hike was in Tahoe in the fall of 2013, when I made the 30 day Ignatian silent retreat. Eight years later, my body isn’t as limber; I walk more carefully. Tomorrow I am having my cataract surgery but yesterday, I hiked with compromised vision. My depth perception is pretty bad so a couple of times, I reached for a tree trunk to hold on to and totally missed my mark, had to try again. It was a little scary and very annoying.

I found out the leggings I was wearing were way too warm for a muggy day in Alabama but that the recommendations I’d read for footwear for the Camino de Santiago were spot on. The big deal when you are walking a long distance is avoiding blisters. People do things like put a film of Vaseline on their feet as the first step in getting ready to walk. A couple of places, I’d read you should wear toe socks that wick well, and then put on another pair of socks that also wick well and provide some cushioning. Instead of hiking boots, hike running shoes that are light, fast drying and cushioned seem to work better. I got myself a pair of Altra Women’s Lone Peak 5 shoes based on those recommendations. While I didn’t do the Vaseline routine, I did everything else and boy, mine were happy toes and feetses. I had no hot spots, I had no place that rubbed, my shoes felt sturdy and provided good traction. I will certainly keep using them to hike.

Last but not least, because I am not as limber, nor have the balance I had in 2013 I need to make some accommodations for that reality. Especially in places that were slick or steep, having some extra help was essential. Yesterday I had to make due with a sturdy branch I found early in the hike to use as a walking stick but it was heavy and eventually, my arm got pretty tired. I’m going to need to get a pair of walking poles. I’m not thrilled at that prospect and I far prefer that to the alternative.

I have woken up today with only a few minor aches even after a 4 hour hike on an “intermediate difficulty” trail. That delights me. After tomorrow, God willing, I will be able to see a lot more, and that moment cannot come soon enough. This 61-year-old incarnate self still has some miles left in her. By this time in 2022, I will be home, if the pilgrimage works out. In the meantime, how cool is it that all around me there are wonderful hiking trails and I can go on these small adventures?

Why? Of Death, Heterotopias, and the Camino

Holy Comforter Memorial Garden, August 2021

I continue to be enchanted, filled with wonder, above all, curious, about this whole thing of making pilgrimage to Santiago. Hardly a day goes by without thinking about it, taking steps, however small, in that direction, learning as much as I can about the pathways and how others have walked. Why? What is it about this possibility that draws me in and draws me onward? This week, another piece fell into place in a conversation I was a part of that had to do with grief.

I shared with others that one of the hardest things I do as a priest is accompany families to make arrangements for their dead at a funeral home. Sometimes it feels like my head will explode as I watch the well-oiled funeral business machine slip soundlessly into gear as we are seated at the table of a conference room way more about veneer than anything else. The funeral director uses every single last piece of hard-sale tactics known to humankind, it seems like. There’s a long, long, long and meandering conversation about options; I have never figured out how to intervene and try to cut it short. The lighting. and the appearance of opulence in the space where the conversation happens. The solicitousness of the sales person.  The music and video technology, both of which amplify genuine love and, even more, easily exploit sentimentality.

There is a mind numbing array of options (for the very modest sum of…) meant to ensure the “Celebration of Life” is as expensive as possible. (This new way of marking a death is described as a “party with a purpose” and touted as a more contemporary and with-it kind of event, in comparison to an old fashioned funeral. After all, who wants to appear to be a fuddy-duddy, stuffy old fogey in the midst of loss and grief, right?) Just the phrase, a beautifully meaningful expression of the gratitude we feel for one we “Love and see no longer” so easily becomes coy and manipulative when used to sell a bill of goods.

Nowadays, it is de rigueur to have a celebration of life with a theme. I have a grudging admiration for the ability to offer endless ‘extras’ to the theme package in order to kick the production that lies ahead to the highest notch possible—BAM! like Emirl would say… All the while, I watch people I know and love, often in shock, overwhelmed and exhausted, get handed one decision after another, until it is easier to say yes than try to think through what matters.  Before the visit, I try to alert the family to the sales tactics they can expect but in the crush of the moment, my words are often meager against the the relentlessness of the sales pitch.

Perhaps the most painful experience I’ve had with this dance of death occurred when a lovely woman in my parish, whose daughters lived out of town, died unexpectedly. The first daughter to arrive had been flying from Asia for almost 24 hours when we met at the funeral home. After an hour and half ‘visit’ with the funeral director assigned to work with her, he said, “there’s one last thing I need to ask you to do.” As the next of kin, it was this person’s job to identify the ‘deceased’ before her body was driven to another state to be cremated. That was not about sales; that was simply about complying with the laws and regulations of the industry.

The man, who I could only describe as unctuous, ushered us into another room where we waited and soon heard the clatter of wheels rolling down the hallway. Another door opened and a “rolling tray” was brought in; my parishioner’s earthly remains were placed right in front of us, starkly, utterly still, and lifeless. Her daughter had not seen her mom for several years. No number of theme-based layers of fluff and distraction could obscure the sharp and unyielding finality of this death. No wasting any time after that either; once her daughter had positively identified that body, the funeral director was eager to usher us out the door.

One of my brothers has a doctorate in semiotics, the study of the ways in which signs, symbols, experiences, are all used to “shape our perceptions of life and reality.” (José Ribas).  He is particularly interested in the notion of ‘heterotopias’—created realities that have as their purpose to maximize profits for others. A good example is Disney World with it’s Magic Kingdom “where you wish upon a star” and “dreams really do come true.”  More and more, I am convinced that heterotopia is the exactly correct word to describe what funeral preparation meetings are about in the funeral homes that are now part of a huge conglomerate that has a monopoly on funerals in this country.  There are layers upon layers of horror in this model—that Sunday afternoon when I sat with a person so exhausted it looked like she might pass out at any moment, I was aware of an edge of pressure in the voice of the funeral director. It probably had to do with the compensation structure of the conglomerate he is employed by. I imagine a good part of his pay is based on commissions, on how much of the experience he’s painted he is able to sell.

Having a daughter stare down at the unvarnished truth of her mother’s death after almost 2 hours of such a hard sell of a soft-edged, romanticized version of death, felt unspeakably cruel. This version of death peddled to an exhausted, grieving daughter, by one small cog of a machine  that treats death as a commodity to maximize profits, felt absolutely demonic to me.

In ways I’m still sorting out, walking the Way of St James is about the place and the meaning of death, of grief, in my life. When Dad died, I fortunately knew of a locally owned crematorium. This small business has no interest in doing more that completing the most basic services needed to lay my fathers ashes to rest. I also knew it was just the beginning of a journey that is both grief and celebration and as connected to our earthliness as the dust under a pilgrim’s feet as she or he walks to Santiago. If all goes as planned, I will arrive in Portugal on September 5th of next year, the anniversary of the day I officiated at my dad’s funeral.  

The journey will not be easy: walking 10-12 miles a day, fighting to not allow my feet to be blistered so badly I can’t take another step, the heat, rain and cold that will all be companions on the path. The places where I hope to lay my head at night, mainly public albuergues (hostels), don’t whitewash what it means to make this pilgrimage. I already read up on how you check for bedbugs in the common spaces you share for the night with up to 40 people. In a strange and grace-filled way, it is even those hard edges of the Camino that feel honest in the face of the unyielding truth of loss, sorrow and life that we must not treat as if expendable commodities.