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.