Look closer

My home, where I am sheltering in place when I am not working at the hospital, is surrounded by woods. I have been looking for signs of spring, which is officially here. Tiny green things are emerging in the leaf litter. I have fond hopes to see a classic host of golden daffodils in the front woods, courtesy of a friend of mine who gave me a (free!) bucketful of daffodil bulbs. I planted those in October’s dark days last fall. Now I see their skinny foliage emerging — a daffodil sticking a limb out of the ground, wondering if it’s safe to come out yet.  

I am also monitoring the development of three witch hazel shrubs, which we planted because our landscaper told us we’d see flowers early. She was right. Its flowers are sneaking up on us, starting as inconspicuous reddish blossoms that pop into little yellow stars, clustering on slender stems. 

My woods also has a marshy spot. My husband constructed some little wooden footbridges to allow us to cross that area without getting soaked.It is a hot spot for early growth, literally.

DC263AEB-D4D9-413F-84DF-1591C6A8467D_1_201_aSkunk cabbages — which to my eyes look like mottled eggplants as they open — are awakening. They make their own heat, melting snow. 

Spring is offering many small signs of arrival. One of the things I learned as a volunteer at the Morton Arboretum working on the prairie there is that the more I look, the more I see. The truth of this never fails to surprise me. 

Quaker query: What are small hopeful signs I can see if I keep looking?

 

Are you comfortable?

These days I am sensitive to words that promote anxiety. My own fear alarm goes off every time I hear a news story about “alarming new developments” about the coronavirus. Hearing about “fears of a pandemic” makes me fearful, reading that “hospitals will be overwhelmed” overwhelms me. I am not counseling the sugarcoating of news, the passing on of platitudes,  or offering dismissive assessments of the magnitude of what we face. But emotion-laden words stir emotions. 

Since I work as a chaplain and my husband is a nurse, we have lots of consultations at the dinner table, at least when our schedules at the hospital let us have dinner together. Right now he is putting in writing what he’s learned over 20 years of practice about what works with his patients. He is a pediatric nurse, so his patients are children, as well as their families. 

A few years back he took some training in hypnosis. One technique he explained to me that makes a lot of sense for my practice is the importance of how you say things. You can ask, for example, “Are you comfortable?” instead of “Are you in pain?” The two words “pain” and “comfort” suggest different things. By what we say, we can suggest different ways for a person to process their experience. (Yes, there is empirical evidence for this.) 

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Because I’m a writer as well as a chaplain, this makes eminent sense to me. Poetry works because it says something in a unique, imagination-grabbing way. Prayer and sermons have special rhythms and images. I am always amazed when rote prayers give comfort in times of distress. The words don’t even have to be new or original. 

When I talk to families as their loved ones are dying, I often talk about love. I tell them to surround this person with their love. I want love to be present in the air even as the patient’s breath fades. I recently worked with a critically ill Sikh patient whose adult child told me it was important that a recording of spiritual teachings play continuously in his room so that the patient would hear holy words as he departed from life. I asked the nurse to honor this request.

The Bible is one traditional source of words that provide strength and comfort: I will be with you always. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. From the Qur’an: God will bring a people whom He loves and who love him. These religious words have secular counterparts: Keep calm and carry on. 

So when I am working, I think before I speak. No, I don’t always pick the right words. But I find I often say what I need to hear as well as what I hope will be of service.

What do you want to hear? Are you comfortable? 

Today’s prayer: 

“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone…”

George Fox

Handy term

Interbeing sounds like an abstract term, but I saw it in action at the grocery store yesterday. Interbeing is a concept at the heart of the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat’s Hanh’s teaching. It means that everything is interconnected and interdependent. Interconnection is a lot easier to see during a pandemic (the Greek root of “pandemic” means “all people,” so there’s a hint).  

For the first time ever, I used one of those sanitary wipes on the shopping cart I took. I kept my gloves on to touch certain things. What somebody else touches, I touch too. What somebody else needs, I do too. The shopping cart handle connects us. So does our need for extra nonperis image.pnghable goods. So do door handles of retail shops, and the handles on sinks in public bathrooms after we have washed our hands.

This could easily become an anxious list of what we literally hold in common. But I choose to think of it as a reminder of interdependence, common goods, and common good. Somebody else’s hands were on what I use. Somebody obviously made the goods I purchase. A lot of things in daily life are hands-on: made by hands (which often operate machines that make), taken up by hands. 

Interbeing is both simple and profound, one of those Zen koan things for these stay-at-home times. We’re all in this together. 

Calm presence.1

I work as a chaplain in two Chicago area hospitals. A good deal of my work involves meeting people in crisis. I have the responsibility of working with patients and their family members who arrive in emergency rooms because of health crises or trauma. Sometimes the patients are unconscious, in which case I am a companion to anxious family members waiting to see their loved ones. I can’t tell the people I meet everything will be all right — because sometimes that’s not true. But I can routinely be a calm presence, listening or praying or offering a cup of cold water or some basic instruction in deep breathing, depending on what they are open to.

In these days of coronavirus pandemic with much uncertainty and collective fear and anxiety, I find I need a calm presence myself. Since I know something about how to do that, and since another important practice within chaplaincy is self-care, I have decided to be my own calm presence. I am a health care professional, but I’m not the one on the team who is responsible for providing medical information. That’s someone else’s job. I know how to find information to become better informed and less fearful, since I used to work as a journalist. But that is not my job now. 

These days, I get paid to provide calm presence. I’m not sure why or how this works, but I know from experience that it helps to be calm in the presence of anxious people. Calm is contagious. 

One of the things that calms me down when I get stressed on the job — I see and hear hard and sad things, and I am called to attend when patients die — is to tell myself that I have what I need. It has become a simple statement of my faith: I have been given what I need. This too I know from experience. Because I am a Christian Quaker, I believe that God has provided this. That recognition prompts gratitude, which is also a nice, calming, all-purpose tonic. Depending on the situation I am working with, I may invite people to consider something along these lines. Chaplains sometimes talk about empowering patients, and I like to suggest to people who may feel like the applecart of their world has just been overturned that they are not helpless and can find inner resources. And, there is someone to help them begin to understand and adjust to this traumatic upheaval.

I don’t know how all this pandemic pandemonium will play out, but for me it’s good to remember that I can turn on a little inner light  — a central Quaker metaphor and tenet — to see more clearly and less fearfully. 

Today’s prayer: Be not afraid.

Dear Mr. President

Greetings on Martin Luther King Day. It’s a good day to reflect on the meaning of his world-changing work, and I would like to remind you of one of many biblical themes that encapsulated his desire to free the oppressed and bring about justice:

“Let justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream.” Dr. King was quoting the Prophet Amos. (All of Amos 5-6 is worth reading. It is a lament for Israel’s sin.) The prophets of ancient Israel were outspoken in their defiance of unjust rulers; they spoke out on behalf of the voiceless and powerless. They warned the mighty of what would certainly come. They knew that the mighty and all who ignored basic justice would be swept away by the unstoppable cleansing flood of righteousness.

It will happen.

The End of the Journey

The Cathedral at Santiago is undergoing renovation. So its best-known face, the Obradoiro Façade, was shrouded by scaffolding and no one could enter through that side of the church. We used the Puerta de las Platerias, on the south side. My very first impression of the church as we circumnavigated it was that it was a fortress; the Wikipedia entry for the cathedral notes that it is the largest Romanesque church in Spain and one of the largest in Europe. I remembered that St. James is known as Santiago Matamoros, the Moor-slayer, important to Spain’s political-national identity. The development of the Way helped attract Christians to the northern kingdoms of Spain.

Once inside I began to see nuance and detail in the vastness of the structure. We attended the botafumeiro ceremony held before the Sunday Mass for pilgrims. The cathedral was packed with people, many of whom left after the massive censer had finished smoking and swinging; large tour groups were present only for that showy ceremony, and the crowd thinned for the Mass afterward.

Santiago, May 28: The swinging of the botafumeiro was like watching a projectile moving back and forth in space, as if it wanted to reach the high high high ceiling, flashing in a smoky haze back and forth. Ritual writ large, literally. We sat on the cold stone steps and were blessed, as it were, to have a good vantage point on the procession entering the church.

The inside was flashy; we saw the vast pipes for the organ, which mesmerized Bill; fixtures inside glittered. Almost accidentally we got in line to pass by the box holding what are said to be the saint’s remains. There was too much to take in, and we who were inside following the Mass were urged to vacate so the next group of visitors could enter. But we sat on the cold floor for Mass, and that ritual joined us to millions of witnesses who had been here before us, since the cathedral was first begun in 1075.

Fisterra, May 29: This is the end of the (Old) World, so named by the Romans, who knew a lot but didn’t know what they didn’t know. Fish swim in small schools near the harbor walls. 

 

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We finally took a bus to this town on the Atlantic Ocean. It had never been part of our pilgrimage plans to walk here, though some do. Bill ran into a pilgrim he had met earlier, who had taken three days to walk from Santiago to Fisterra.

Spain that used to rule the seas and colonized the southern half of the Western hemisphere for centuries is today a modest and slightly broke country. Things change, they end. Our journey ended here, and both of us were more than ready to return. Fisterra, which once symbolized the end of the world, was the end of making my world bigger, growing it to encompass 46 million contemporary Spaniards, living in beautiful stone houses throughout the countryside, riding the Madrid metro, serving us the menu of the day with a bottle of local Spanish wine, welcoming us at the end of a hard day’s walk.

Today’s pilgrims, ranging from Pennsylvania to Sydney, Australia, (two who walked up behind us when they heard us one day speaking English), all have their homes too, and their boot prints follow in the footsteps of a millennium’s worth of pilgrims. Everyone has a story, everyone has a soul (we were struck by the Iglesia de Las Animas in Santiago, with its colorful relief of souls in the flames of Purgatory).

I summarize my pilgrimage for people who ask by telling them it was both delightful and difficult. I do not feel more holy, but I do feel more whole.

Dublin airport, May 31: Pilgrimage unifies mind/body/soul. The body is taxed and the mind goes a little wacky and the soul is touched.

Walking the Camino, Two: Street cats and other discoveries

If nature abhors a vacuum, perhaps the God of creation does as well, since there may be no difference between God and nature. Leaving old things behind makes space for the new. I kept my eyes open to this new landscape. This was important in order not to fall while walking. The ground dictated the journey: paved surface meant we could make time, inclines called for a slower pace, large rocks required attention to footing, smaller rocks and gravel taxed feet and legs.

The journey was a holistic, unifying one. Body, mind, and soul walked as one; everything was labor, sometimes easier, sometimes harder. I was my feet, and was deeply blessed in that respect. Most pilgrims asked one another: where did you start? How are your feet? My husband got big blisters that turned purple; I got none.

Pedrouzo, May 26: This is an opportunity to pay attention to bodily needs: gotta have a toilet! Don’t forget to drink! My feet tingle, my skin burns, my legs are stiff. Nothing super spiritual.  

One day before we entered Galicia, we stopped, and he asked me to go to a pharmacy (farmacia, ubiquitous along the route) for some bandages of a particular size. When I entered, I discovered a sizeable section devoted to foot care, with a dazzling variety of bandages, supports, and ointments for toes and feet. (This is one of many aspects of commercial support for the pilgrimage along the Camino.)

It was not possible to think about much beyond walking while walking. After five hours, walking generally became a burden, and my pack and I felt heavier. But usually mornings had a rhythm: walk early and rapidly, stop for coffee and juice, press on as the sun rose and the air warmed. The rhythm of the rainy days – there were two – was considerably more challenging. Walking earlier was always less effortful, as was walking under overcast skies or in tree-covered areas. Walking near busy roadways could be distressing because of noisy, speeding traffic. The ancient destination of Santiago awaits after you walk past the roar of planes at the Santiago airport. (What would Santiago think?)

The road determines the day. Because of this, simplicity is unavoidable and welcome. All I have to do today is walk X kilometers. The day is structured by a simple goal, and it becomes easier to imagine simpler times before workdays and automobiles existed. Walking each day, sleeping in a different place each night, made it easier for me to imagine the historic life of Jesus, walking up and down Galilee, getting his feet dusty, with no place to lay his head (Matt 8:20, Lk 9: 58).

Pedrouzo, May 26: If you walk, this is more or less as hard to do as it has been for centuries. Take out the paved parts.  

Leaving things behind makes for a simple day: walk, clean up, rest, eat, sleep. Repeat.

Every day was a circus of novelty: valleys filled with early morning mist. Cows trundling down village streets and leaving reminders of their passage as they head to pasture. Ancient trees, tall trees, riots of roses everywhere, the vigorous young grapevines in the sunlight of the Bierzo region. Dry stone walls everywhere, the oldest topped with moss skin. The rosy foxgloves of Galicia, brightening the shade. The hórreos of Galicia; a resident gave us the word but misspelled it, so it took a while for us to understand the function of these small granaries on so many properties. I was astonished the first time I heard a cuckoo sing; then I never stopped hearing them. Street cats: in Molinaseca someone has put out kibble for them, and four of them are eating demurely in a brick-paved alley.

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We stop for the night in Linares, which has no restaurants and more cows than people; our neighbors are cows, who stop vocalizing after their dinner.

Insights into essential simplicity and holism sound enviably profound. They came at a cost. The journey was hard. Some days we walked seven hours. Our first day of rain was miserable; the rain was cold and wind-driven. We stopped for coffee; I was stiff with damp cold and drawn in on myself. The trail underfoot was especially lumpy with scree that required careful walking.

I always found walking uphill challenging. My pack seemed heavier. My husband showed me a way of using my walking stick more effectively on ascents so make the climbs less effortful. Occasionally I simply begged God: You brought me here. Get me uphill! This prayer, in the vein of writer Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow essential prayers, always worked.

The fact that so many people were willing to do something that hurt them, to judge by the routine occurrence of foot and toe problems, gave me insight into martyrdom spirituality, which I had found foreign when encountering it in my study of Christian spirituality. I better understood the personal commitment to a purpose that made it possible to do difficult things. Pilgrims managed to overlook personal discomfort in forging on.

The number of people who undertake the Camino are considerable. In 2016, around 280,000 pilgrims completed a pilgrimage, according to the pilgrimage office in Santiago. My husband and I were two of 35,000 people to receive a compostela, a certificate of completion, in May of this year.

Within those numbers is much national diversity. The largest number of pilgrims comes from Spain, followed by Germany, Italy, the United States, Portugal, France, Ireland, and the U.K. We also met pilgrims from Australia and Sweden. The way is multilingual; a lot of signage is in both Spanish and English, and in Galicia many signs include the Galician dialect as well. The Camino was not the best place to practice Spanish, although it helped in checking in to the albergues. Many restaurant workers spoke enough English to specify a bill total in English, and sometimes menus were available in English or in Spanish, English, German, and French.

One aspect of the pilgrimage that I did not experience deeply, although my husband did, was cross-cultural conversation. He told me that he had sought out conversations with others during the solo portion of his journey. Couples, however, have a different dynamic and appear to relate primarily to each other. This was true for us. I am normally fairly ready to initiate conversations with strangers, but did not find much energy to do so on the pilgrimage. The change of language was somewhat intimidating, and I was frequently tired when occupying common space at the end of a day.

Santiago, May 27: I am so tired. I think the spiritual message is that it is not possible to have a disembodied spiritual message. 

This surprised me somewhat, since it confounded my expectations. I felt I missed some richness that I was aware of around me. People walked at different paces, however, making it hard to stay with a consistent cohort of pilgrims.

Related to this was my growing recognition of wanting living space that I did not have to share with others.

Linares, May 20: No private bath but just sharing with two others and no one in the bathroom when I showered and lots of hot water. … (In my dream) strange men kept appearing in my own home. Last night we only shared space with one person, a woman. Tonight there is a couple, like us. I had no idea I needed my own space this much. 

Staying in albergues is inexpensive because one buys shared space rather than a rom with a door. In Portomarin we had the good fortune to sleep in a two-person cubicle that had access to an actual private bathroom. But the amenity I missed most was a full-size towel, since I was traveling with a lightweight quick-drying travel towel that was smaller than standard size.

Pedrouzo, May 26: What I love most about furnished hospitality: towels. Clean sheets are nice, but the right size towel is a gift from Goddess. God might not think of it, but the handmaid of the Lord would.  

I reflected regularly on hospitality, since I stayed at a different place each night, meeting different hosts, seeing different facilities for the essential tasks of washing self and laundry, encountering kitchens (or not). Many of the albergues had guest books signed by pilgrims from different countries. Bill encountered a few characters (one he called Señor Grito –Spanish for “shout” – from his habit of shouting at guests) but the hosts I met were generally solicitous, some more skilled at English than others. We who walked daily were dependent on today’s innkeepers, who took us in for a modest amount (a bed was often five or six Euros). I was a stranger who did not speak the dominant language.

Hospitality may be a virtue and an attitude, but it is also a business. The World Economic Forum has ranked Spain 1st for the past two years in “travel and tourism competitiveness.” Spain ranks highly for tourist service infrastructure, cultural resources and their promotion, and the prioritization of travel and tourism. The Camino Francés and the routes of Northern Spain are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. People have been traveling the Camino Francés for a millennium, so the way is well-appointed. The pilgrim can find a café-bar every few kilometers, though they may seem farther apart in rain. Each time I felt like grumbling about the commercialization of the way, usually when seeing tacky souvenirs, I remembered Ian Reader’s helpful presentation in Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction on the inextricability of the commercial and spiritual along major pilgrimage routes. Santiago teems with souvenir shops, and we spent Euros in one of them.