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.

Remembrance

Mami As a Little Girl

My mom would have turned 88 today but it has been 10 years since her death. For  the last 10 years of her life, that celebration was overlayed by all the horror and desolation of “9/11” and I still regret that for her. Especially with the passage of time, but even from the night she died, I have not often felt my mom’s presence. Now, in light of the time after my dad’s death last August, I am struck by the fact that I feel my dad’s presence so often. I think there’s a pretty straightforward explanation for that difference—Dad was so much a part of the quotidian experience of life on our little farm that there are all kinds of memories associated with different parts of our place and the things that fill my days. I still have the sense when I am out in our small pecan grove that if I turn quickly enough, I will catch him walking with Mouse, the cats and the horses just behind me.  

This morning, I went out and did some gardening, one of Mom’s great delights.  In a flash and unexpectedly, it was as if she was right there next to me, digging into the soil, telling stories about her garden. I was so grateful for that moment of connection with her. She was a complicated person and our relationship was complicated, but in that moment there was none of that, just the simple truth of how much she loved me and how much I loved her. It is love which does not die.

I’ve been struggling to put words down on paper for weeks. The news keeps overwhelming me, leaving me struggling for a single word of hope I might hold on to or share with others. Marking the first anniversary of my dad’s death and the unraveling of the relationship with one of my siblings has been painful. There’s work to do that takes energy and small projects that require less of me and help me fill time. I’ve also had upper respiratory crud that fortunately is not Covid-19 but still has left me tired. This week though, something started shifting. My sermon for tomorrow has come together far more easily than others have for weeks. Words and then sentences started taking hold as I watched all the media kick into high gear in commemoration of 9/11. 

Day before yesterday, Sherod told me his niece, who is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, called to talk to him about the flare-up of PTSD she was experiencing. As she watched the news one morning this week, she saw a clip of the Pentagon just after the plane crashed into it that day. K had been in that wing and she realized she was watching herself pulling another staff person out who was covered in blood. She’d never known that moment was captured on film and it was horrific to watch.

This is what occurs to me about the difference between presence, remembering, and reliving the past, especially when there is money to be made and ad time to sell: I guess because of how our brains work, the sense of being present with someone who’s absent or even dead, comes from the grooves or synapse chains in our brains that place that person in a deeply familiar task or kind of experience. We know down to our core how someone we’ve loved and lost would be in this place, in this moment. Sherod and I tell little stories about my dad more frequently now—“Remember when Dad….” The edges of those pictures are a little fuzzier, there is a kind of distance that tempers whatever it was that happened.  The relentless onslaught of clips of 9/11 that are played over and over with no mercy are like the worst of the flashbacks that I have watched Sherod experience from his time in Vietnam. It feels exploitive.  And because this is such a common practice now, at a time when fractures are becoming abysses in this country, that process of revisiting is not just unhealthy, it feels life-draining and so very destructive.

I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard the news of the first airplane crashing into the first of the World Trade buildings. I find my heart beginning to race if I happen to catch a snippet of sound of that day as Sherod watches TV. I have been on the verge of tears for a couple of days now. But I do not dishonor the dead or how badly our nation was wounded when I am clear that it has been twenty years. That life has gone on. That there are things I have to do and be today that are about now. Now. 

I am grateful for the memories and what they help me learn. I thank the One who created my Mami. I thank the One who created me for my life and for everything my mom was and did while she walked on this home we call Earth. That is all.

Things Broken, Repaired, Transcendent-I

One of Enedina’s Crosses

I met Enedina Vasquez over dinner at a friend’s house in Pembroke Pines, FL, many, many years ago. An artist, a theologian, a pastor, Enedina was one of those charming, playful, full of life people who make real that phrase, “live your best life.” She was also a consummate salesperson and that night, she had things to sell! Extraordinary things!

Some of you reading this may remember the heart and cross glass pieces she made as she walked the way of grief after her husband and artistic soulmate died. Taking broken shards of glass of different colors, she’d heat them up enough to make them malleable and put them together to make something new.  Then each new piece was put through another heating process that melded all the shards into one. When each piece cooled, she made small drawings of deeply religious symbols on the glass, symbols drawn from her rich heritage as a Tejana from a family that had lived in Texas stretching back hundreds and hundreds of years, back when Texas was still part of México. Finally, she’d hang a wonderful bouquet of ribbons at the bottom of each piece—reminders of the promise of a rainbow. Some of the ribbons had tiny little charms—ofrendas, offerings we are able to make when we are grateful.

That night at dinner she explained that she’d never worked with glass before but found it the perfect medium to express the quiet hope that began to walk with her through all the shadows cast on the path through her husband’s death. After being baked the second time, the hearts she made had all kinds of imperfections and small holes in them. Her own heart had shattered and then been slowly remade after losing Arturo. Life ran through her, and her heart never stopped pumping. But it was a new life, a new heart, both fragile and strong, holy, whole, and incomplete. 

I kept in touch with Ene through the years, mainly through Facebook. It was my joy and privilege to give lots of friends crosses or hearts of her making. I was even able to host her at Church of the Ascension in Montgomery, one All Saints weekend. We had some time before she started her workshop so we rode around so she could see the traces of the Civil Rights in West Central Alabama. I took her picture as she walked down the Edmund Petus bridge in Selma and then we stood quietly for a while at the foot of the bridge. So many spirits walking with her.  Such thin space. We were both deeply affected in the sunlight that didn’t warm much because a north wind was blowing cold.

Day before yesterday over and over again, I thought of Ene and I told myself I’d track her down this weekend. This morning, I got a text message from T. who met Enedina at the Ascension. She wanted to let me know that on Tuesday, Enedina died of cancer. I am very sad. I am extraordinarily thankful for what Ene taught me about sorrow, grief and our capacity to grieve, love, care and give even in the face of terrible loss. 

I have started gathering a small handful of stones for my journey on the Camino. Some are about relationships that have been profoundly damaged. Those stones will be offered with prayers for healing that I cannot bring about on my own. I will carry one to offer with the deepest thanksgiving and joy for an extraordinary, beautiful, holy woman, and friend named Enedina

Day by Day

One morning as summer was just beginning, I had been working on my laptop for a while. I became aware I was having a harder time seeing the screen.  Immediately, I felt a pang of fear and shame. As a very, very young child who needed extensive, sometimes excruciatingly painful, medical care. You can read some of the details here. The results of that experience are: a life-long resistance to going to the doctor, a fear of needles and shots and an aversion to the smell of rubbing alcohol that was used liberally on open wounds when I developed bedsores during the years I spent in a full-length cast.

At any rate, here I was with some deterioration in my eyesight that I’d been ignoring. I am still not sure what prompted me to do this, but first, I put my hand over my glasses on my right eye and looked at the screen. I didn’t see the screen nearly as clearly as I should. Then I covered my left eye and it felt like the ground gave out under me. All I could see out my right eye was light and shadow; it was as if I was swimming in milk with my eyes open. I needed to find out what was going on.

I finally made it into the doctor in late June. It’s a cataract. One so thick the doctor could not see through it to the back of my eye when I got my eye exam. My other eye also has a cataract, but not nearly as bad. However, based on what he saw in my left eye, the doctor is pretty confident that once the cataract is removed, I’ll be able to see just fine. 

There is such a backlog of folks needing eye care that I won’t be evaluated for the cataract surgery until early in September. I have no sense of how long it will be after that before I get that cataract removed. It’s no fun having such limited vision right now. I’m not driving at night. I am super cautious even during the day when I drive and I’m doing some other things to make it easier on myself while I wait for the surgery.

As I keep poking around all the different places that have information about the Portuguese Camino, the pictures suggest there is some stunning beauty to behold on that pilgrimage. These nights, as I sweat through my workouts on the elliptical, increasing the amount of time I spend on that wretched machine, jacking up the incline level to prepare for hillside walking, I sometimes sing along to one of the pieces of my ‘oldies but goodies’ go-to music, Day by Day Godspell. With this impaired vision of mine, that song has a whole new meaning.  

Journey

This one was a very short journey—a little more than a half-hour drive. J & P, two remarkable men, got home from México a week ago with their new-born baby girl. Earlier this year, they were able to bring home their first child, a little boy with the bluest eyes. Both babies are thriving; the papas? Awfully sleep deprived! Trying to imagine what it’s like to have a 5-month-old and a 2-week-old, I’d prepared a meal of Colombian comfort food to run over to them. Then I remembered there was something else I’d been planning to take. 

First, the backstory. My mom had a very hard time with our decision to adopt Luz María. About 10 months into the adoption process, she made a comment about this child that was already my daughter in all but the legal formalities; her comment was crushing to me.  It left the two of us deeply estranged from each other. Fast forward a year, when the adoption process was almost complete. Unexpectedly, I got a call from an acquaintance from Colombia who had travelled to Miami. She told me she’d brought some things with her from Cali that my mom had sent so we made arrangements for me to pick them up the next day.

The gifts were not for me. They were for my girl. They were a set of the most beautiful little dresses imaginable, along with one little night gown. This was a peace offering, the way my mom knew how to express acceptance of my daughter, how to show her love for her own daughter.  

They were all gorgeous and one in particular stole my heart—a little yellow dress not unlike one I wore when I was a girl not much older than the child I would soon bring home to finish raising. That yellow dress was the only one I took with me to México twenty years ago, when it was finally time to receive María.  We arrived on a Sunday morning and went straight to the orphanage where she was staying. The staff had bought María a very cute outfit and I regret that on that day, I couldn’t wait to change her into the little yellow dress; I wish I had been better able to rejoice in how she came to me instead of being in such a hurry to impose my vision of who she would be. I can’t go back and change that moment and I want to believe I grew into being a more thoughtful and aware mom. Over and over again, that dress has still been a reminder of the joy of becoming a mom, of having a stunningly beautiful child, of feeling her slip her little hand in mine wherever we went. 

As María outgrew her abuelita’s dresses, they went into a special keepsake box I had for them. For years, I kept them carefully packed away, occasionally pulling the box down from the closet shelf to look at those lovely pieces of clothing and remember those early months as a parent. The day we placed her in her residential program when she turned 16 and needed more care than we could provide, I came back home, pulled those dresses out again, sobbed and raged at the injustice and the brokenness that had gutted the promise of providing our daughter a home to grow and thrive in until she was ready to have her own home.

Slowly—very slowly—I became aware that I was holding on to those dresses in a way that did them no honor. Even more slowly, I made my peace with the truth that these were not clothes a granddaughter might one day wear. Instead, one found its way to the UK, to María’s cousin. Once I had done that, it became a lot easier to send each of them to another little girl, and then another, until all I had left was the yellow dress. 

When J and P told me they were going to have a little girl who would be born in México through a surrogacy program for gay men, I knew little R would get this last dress. I got to bless these two men’s marriage. I have come to cherish them. My both beautiful and broken family is now part of so many different expressions of what it means to be a family, so many different efforts to provide for children in ways that are life giving. I am beyond thankful for that much broader vision and understanding of love and devotion. 

I’ll confess I cried again yesterday, as I ironed that little part of who my girl was and who I was twenty years ago. I allowed myself to abide in the realization that all journeys are about death and life, letting go and receiving so much more than I can earn, all those paradoxes inextricably bound together. After a lovely visit with this new little family, I came home to an empty house; my Spouseman is on a trip to Kentucky to see his daughter M. I immersed myself in an app I found for my phone that is a pilgrim’s guide to all the villages the Portuguese Coastal Camino goes through. One journey (or perhaps, one part of the journey) is complete.  Another beckons. 

Now

I don’t fight them and in fact, simply let them visit. But the parts of me that tend to be the most pessimistic and fearful pipe up from time to time these days, enumerating so many ways in which the pilgrimage to Santiago may not work. Soon enough those negative thoughts dissipate and there is such a sense that I am already walking. That now matters as much as the day I walk into the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

On Saturday, I officiated at a burial out in rural Alabama. Just the name, “Oak Bowery,” is so beautiful. A good part of the drive to get there was on country roads. We had had blistering heat for several days and as I got closer to the funeral home where the visitation was taking place, the rain started–welcome for the relief from the heat, challenging for a graveside service. That old cliche, “even the skies are grieving” seemed appropriate for a person who died too soon. However, I barely made it to the funeral home in time to join the funeral cortege. Because I was late, I ended up fairly far in the back of the line of cars following the hearse. The woman who died comes from a large family so even a small family graveside service meant about 25 or so cars slowly, carefully, driving in the rain.

Over and over again, on the opposite side of the road, cars had pulled over to the side, out of respect for the solemnity of that moment. Most of them had pulled off enough that if there was an emergency vehicle or someone in too much of a hurry that needed to get through, they could do so–probably the kind of thoughtfulness that does not require thought if you’ve lived out in that part of the country.

I kept wanting to stop and lean out the window, thank each stopped car for the respect they were showing, for acknowledging the hearse not only carried the precious remains of a beloved person, but had opened a thin, a liminal, space. Each person in the cars that had pulled over was surely reminded how even in life, we are always closer to death than we want to accept. Just as important, especially for those grieving intensely, all those cars that had stopped were a silent reminder that we carry our grief in community, that no matter how isolating sorrow can be, there are always other pilgrims walking along the way. That companionship matters.

Hoping to walk from Porto to Santiago de Compostela means so many different things, even now. I’ve buried a lot of folks in the past year; just since Easter, I’ve officiated at 4 funerals. After I got the news that B had died, I sat with the parish administrator who has also become a good friend, and said, “so, so many losses.” Her response took me by surprise. She said something like, “yes, but then that has to do in part with the fact that we are getting older, more deaths come with the territory.” I was startled–after all, I simply cannot fathom that I am already more than 60 years old. But she has a point.

Without wanting to be lugubrious or morbid, one thing the pilgrimage means to me is an opportunity to recognize that in this time of my life, I am walking towards my own death. It isn’t that I anticipate it any time soon, or want to obsess about my mortality. It is much more about the realization that there is hope and grace to be found in not running away from, nor denying my days will come to an end. I yearn to meet death with dignity, grace, to have lived so even the last days have space for joy and laughter in the absence of fear and regret.

It looks like there is a place on the Coastal Portuguese Route, where pilgrims who have gone before me have left stones engraved with a message, a word, a simple image. The most famous of these rock piles is on the French Route of the Camino, at the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross). The tradition of putting down a stone on such a pile is ancient. It is a gesture of penance, of gratitude, of putting down a burden. You have to travel light for this journey and I am trying to think what small stone or stones I’d want to put down if there is a rock pile like there is at Cruz de Ferro on the French route. Perhaps it will be those two words, left behind to open more space for life.

That part of the road is far off still. Here today, there is now…