Getting ready. Part One.

So the plan is to walk the Camino de Santiago. This Christian pilgrimage route in northern Spain has been trod since the 9th century. It honors the apostle James, according to legend buried in Spain. More legend involves James in the Christian effort to evict the Moors from Spain in a battle in 844 that didn’t actually happen. Nonetheless St. James managed to become the patron of Spain and gained the sobriquet Santiago Matamoros: the Moor killer. This historical context of conquest and killing for religion’s sake will be something to reflect on as I walk the route. History cannot be ignored, but it need not be a mire in which to get stuck.

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Why am I doing this? It seemed like a good idea when my husband said he planned to do it. I happen to like Spain, having visited Barcelona. I like walking with my husband; it is one of our chief shared joys. And when I inquired, I discovered I could get academic credit from my seminary. It added up to a number of reasons to take a long walk.

I see preparation in two ways: spiritual and physical. I’ve started the conditioning, walking with a weighted backpack. My husband has already procured various waterproof sacks into which things one wants to keep dry are to be stuffed. I am wearing my old hiking boots right now, hoping they will suffice. I don’t think medieval pilgrims went out and bought new gear for the journey.

I have begun looking forward to something that has heretofore inspired mostly anxiety. I write to train my thoughts to go in this direction, instead of idling in the shadows. The spiritual preparation is harder and therefore easier to ignore. But at both levels, I have to figure out what I need to carry and what I should leave behind.

Much more later.

Travel Anxiety

I had a period earlier in my life when I was fearful about flying. I remember having some exceptionally turbulent flights that might have been the cause. It took a few years for that worry to recede. But I begin to wonder if it hasn’t been replaced by pre-travel anxiety. I notice I dread getting ready for traveling.

I’m going to walk the Camino de Santiago, a millennium-old spiritual pilgrimage route in northern Spain, in late spring with my husband. I keep waiting to get excited. Instead I’m worrying: what if he gets sick? What if I get sick? What if the accommodations are dirty? I don’t know very much Spanish. Will the cats be OK without us? I hate cold showers. My backpack is too heavy (six pounds).

I started googling. “Travel anxiety” got 54 million hits. The first aha: I’m not alone. You mean I’m not the only one who worries about going to a foreign country where I don’t speak the language and I’ll be walking 250 kilometers and wondering what to do if it rains as I walk? My first step down a path of many kilometers is a small one of relief.

Lots of help pops up when I research the Camino, which I have already started. I may be anxious, but I am also preparing: Tickets bought. Walking with weighted pack. Reading guides. And worrying.

Anxiety about the unfamiliar is normal; this I know, and I know concrete things to lessen anxiety, all of which have to do with reducing the unknown to the extent I can without becoming a control freak: find a cat sitter. Figure out what I will carry and weigh it. Keep up with conditioning.

Some of it is fear of finding out things about myself: I expect to be able to do this. What if I can’t? Then who am I? The farther I go down the road of what-ifs, the more I detour from the main route of learning, planning, hoping. This particular journey is intended to make demands. The Way of St. James is supposed to be hard. It is also voluntary.

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It is also a spiritual journey. For me that means my husband will not be my only traveling companion. Jesus, whom I have gotten better acquainted with over the past six years at seminary, lived a life on his feet, going from town to town. One of his best known journeys took place after the resurrection, when he went unrecognized by two walking companions going to Emmaus. Jesus on the road inspired a lot of Western artists. Carl Jung regards the much (re)told story, stuck in the imaginations of so many, as an instance of the “magical traveling companion.” I plan to remember that while walking.

Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning: A Dialog

(Editorial note: My adult child and I are both active members of the Religious Society of Friends [Quakers]. A recent annual gathering of young adult Friends produced what Quakers call a minute: an official statement of a position. The minute has started circulating, prompting discussion. I have permission to post the statement to provide context for my thoughts in the essay that follows.)

A Concern Minute from Western Young Friends New Years Gathering

Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning” – Luke 12:35 (NIV)

Enduring the past year’s national rhetoric, and watching the spread of violence and hateful speech, we see that we are in times that demand more from the Religious Society for any hope of love and justice and peace. As the Western Young Friends’ New Year’s Gathering, we call on meetings of every size and kind to consider:

How can we prepare for the times ahead? How can we join hands with other communities of faith, honor our tradition and history of action, and find courage in the face of fear? For five days at the closing of each year, this Gathering draws young Friends from along the West Coast and beyond to bring a small Quaker community into being. We create the community in which we wish to live, filled with peace and vitality. This takes loving labor, but we know, experimentally, that it is possible to live with intention while responding quickly to challenges. Living in this possibility, we call on our elders, national Quaker organizations, and meetings at all levels to help us prepare ourselves to be the right tool in the hand of the Spirit for our times. Because of these Gathered experiences, we understand that the process and strength that comes from unity can take time. This creates in us a sense of urgency to begin the work now. We offer our energy, ideas, and commitment to change; we ask that the broader Quaker community, including all branches, offer its wisdom and resources. We see faithful individuals and small groups acting on Quaker testimonies, with support from their respective meetings. But we of this Gathering hunger for action that we have not seen taken recently by bodies of Friends, actions equal or greater to anything we have done before. We ask that meetings heed this call to communal action, and discern their right collective contribution towards national and worldwide work. Although recent history shows the long arc bending toward justice, there is no guarantee that such a path is inevitable. It requires the work of many hands. George Fox asked: “What canst thou say?” We ask: “What can we do?”

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My dear older child and friends,

You recently asked what you could do to respond to the climate in our country that has produced violence and hateful speech. Being good Quakers, you followed the Quaker process for discussing and reporting your concern. My Quaker meeting received what you wrote, and, being good Quakers, we discussed it.

We didn’t come up with an agenda, although we got as far as affirming that taking action promoted hope. The question has continued to nag me, and I felt utterly inadequate to answer it. Something has arisen in me, as we say in Quaker speak, and I’m not sure I like it. I’m not at all sure you will like it. But you know I have always talked about using your gifts, so I will use my gift of writing to think this through and explain it.

I think you and many others are right that the system we have in this country for setting national priorities is wrong. So change it. If the laws in this country are wrong, don’t disobey them. Change them. I’m edging up to saying don’t protest things, change them. But I think protest has a place, as a way of showing strength and solidarity. Changing things requires a lot more energy and follow-through than marching.

One of the things handed out at the Jan. 21 Women’s March (as I said, protest has a place) was a “what’s next” flyer. The first thing it said was “register to vote.” Only about a quarter of eligible American voters voted for the man now occupying the White House. The rest voted for someone else or just stayed home. Voter turnout was 56 percent, so lots of people stayed home. When Barack Obama won in 2008, turnout set a record at 61 percent. Little and undramatic things like showing up do count.

Next on the scale of undramatic things is changing who is in office right now. The landscape looks very dismal for progressives right now. One party runs everything right now at the national level, and completely controls 24 states. That makes uphill steep. One thing I learned was do-able during election seasons was showing up to make phone calls and to knock on doors to canvass. Knocking on doors, especially when the weather is nice, is one way to have conversations with people you don’t know and to hear their concerns. If you work for a candidate who wins, you play a part, however small, in that victory. I helped elect Harold Washington as the history-making first black mayor of Chicago in 1983.

A bigger next step is to run for public office yourself. Before Bernie Sanders ran for president, he was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, population 38,000 in 1980. Paul Soglin, who is now the mayor of Madison, Wis., again, was first elected mayor in 1973, after having started on the city’s council in 1968 as a graduate student. Barack Obama was 35 when he began his career as an Illinois State Senator in 1997.

You quoted Luke 12:35: “Be ready dressed for service and keep your lamps burning.” I am suggesting public service, which used to be a venerable term, and choice, before it was redefined for polemical purpose as “career politician.” Public service assumes that there is a public, a life and a space we share in this country that brings different people together to use such things as public schools and public transportation and public parks. There are many things the public needs; better public officials is only one of them.

I am sorry I have no advice that is especially dramatic. Some of you may be called to chain yourselves to various fences surrounding various bastions of power, but don’t feel bad if that is not your call. I happen to be studying medieval spirituality right now, and one thing the great saints and sages of the era emphasize is humility. This classical virtue is out of style today, but it’s been on my mind lately as a counterweight to public bombast and dishonesty. With so much work to be done, everybody has a part to play, whether flashy or humble. Keep your lamp trimmed and burning.

I hope you get more responses. This is mine for now.

Under Development

My husband and I own vacant land at the very edge of far west suburban Chicago. We presently live 40 miles west of the city; the acreage is another half hour further west, just a little bit past a few scattered subdivisions but before you get to the extensive corn and soybean fields and fields in Illinois’ flat northwestern quadrant. It’s wooded land that adjoins the Fox River and a state park. We’ve been dithering for years about building a home on the property. We’ve had dozens of excuses over a dozen years for not doing anything: Can’t commute from there. Too remote. Not sure the schools are good enough. The neighbor’s house is too blue.

The kids are grown, the end of the commute is in sight. The river is still there, and you can see it in the winter when the trees are bare. You can also see the neighbor’s big blue, also still there.

My husband and I have been talking to a builder, and today, on an unnaturally mild February day when it was 65 degrees out and sunny, we walked our vacant land. We interred a cat out there years ago and paid our respects to her; Harley is pushing up weeds and wildflowers now. Under layers of leaf litter and fallen limbs (not all the trees are standing vigorously upright on our wooded land) little green things are emerging, maybe confused because it’s been so warm. We find something that looks like rue foliage. Here’s a black walnut; we look up to see which skinny tree has yielded it.

Scrubby understory is everywhere, brambly bent berry branches I recognize and varieties of weedy junk I can’t recognize without leaves. I let out a deep gardener’s sigh. Bill says he’ll bring a chain saw later in the season to clear a walking path to make it easier to descend to the river, which is downhill, a blue ribbon we see through the lanky trees. We need educated eyes to help us figure out what to keep and what to remove. Surely we’ll never need firewood. Two boulders halfway down to the river could make good sitting spots or points of orientation.

We leave a rope that outlines one possible edge for the house, one tiny dent in the uninhabited woods, a little wedge for the imagination: here’s where the house would stop, so this is what you would see. That is helpful; my mind’s eye can’t see much beyond this raw patch of skinny trees and leaf litter.

img_0002 At the edge of the property, close to where development has laid in the road we will someday be using to get home, my husband installs a birdhouse. It’s designed for bluebirds, and we locate it at the edge of where the trees begin; bluebirds prefer the open. He mounts it; we hear, one, two, three chickadees overhead. Hard to say if they are just being their nosy selves or eying the new real estate development.

We’ll see who moves in.

On hospitality

My seminary classmates and I recently concluded a two-week in-depth introduction to the Quran. These classes are called intensives for a reason; all one really has time for after class is reading, writing, eating, and sleeping. (OK, I did some laundry and got some exercise, too.) We closed our discussion with reflections about the experience of being a guest in someone else’s religious home.

The metaphor is rich. Depending on whom I am visiting, I might take off my shoes. I say thank you. I’m not rude. I don’t say the food is awful or the décor is ugly. I don’t offer alternative recipes that I find superior or suggest the place would be improved if they only hung different things on the wall. I find things to admire and enjoy. I offer compliments and curiosity: how did you do that? Can I get the recipe?

My host has welcomed me and graciously shared something of value. I recall a time of literally being a guest in another culture, when strangers in Castaner, Puerto Rico, opened their home and shared a meal. We spoke two different languages but connected through a translator and through hospitality. Hospitality is what opens doors for strangers and prompts hosts to give. Generosity is a matter of course and a matter of kindness.

1910_558109703_1149054_mughal_ewer_41  Hospitality is about turning those who aren’t known, and might be potential threats, into those who are known, thereby establishing rights and relationship. It’s the opposite of closing doors. Hospitality in the ancient Middle East was a matter of life and death. As America now attempts to close its doors to perceived threats from the Middle East, it is acting inhospitably.

I did not set out to critique when I first began to reflect on the subject, only to explore a practice and situation that is easy to relate to. In the abstract, hospitality is about a set of rules for getting along: respect for and gratitude to a host, sustenance for a guest. It’s a mutual relationship that leaves both better off, and dials down the threat level as well.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unaware.” The Bible, which originated in the ancient Middle East, is replete with stories of hospitality (as well as its violation). The Quran is also aware of these ancient rules for obtaining sustenance and establishing safety. Hospitality establishes safe zones, it would seem.

There is a way forward in times larded with suspicion. Can I get the recipe?

Witness

When I was first trained at a journalism school in the 1980s, I was taught that journalism was about witnessing. I quickly learned that it wasn’t possible to see everything, but my eyes didn’t lie. I trained my eyes and ears and memory to see and write down and remember and write it down fast. The eyes don’t lie. It’s important to be there; journalists call it shoeleather reporting. It’s work; you don’t guess but you could be wrong. That’s why it’s called the first draft of history.

Here’s my first draft on the Chicago Women’s March on Saturday, Jan. 21, and I am glad I didn’t have to file this right away. I was in the crowd of an estimated 250,000 marchers, standing in the street on Congress Parkway, a couple blocks south of whatever was going on by way of a program with speakers. There were signs, signs, signs, and the best ones were homemade. My favorite was “Toddlers against Trump,” written on cardboard in red crayon and smeared with crayon. YUUUUUGE MISTAKE was good. The Devil Wears Pravda. Paws Off Women’s Bodies (this from a pug in a backpack, with bonus joke #puglife). Girls Just Want to Have Fundamental Human Rights. Reading the signs was better than hearing the program; they roared with wit. My own sign was pretty staid: Diversity is Reality.

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As has been reported, they did cancel the march but we marched anyway, flowing down Congress to Wabash to the main stream of marchers on Jackson to LaSalle. Yes, there were grandmas and strollers and a Muslim man whose sign said “I respect my wife and her rights.” I was attuned to the symbols of religion: clerical collars, a woman wearing a kippah and a prayer shawl and pushing a stroller. I’m white and I saw young and old African-American women, young and old white women, young and old white men. I didn’t see a lot of young African-American men, but there was much I didn’t witness in a crowd of a quarter-million.

This wasn’t my first demonstration, but it’s been a while. I decided fairly last-minute to go after figuring out how to travel so I could get to work immediately afterward. I thought the event would be predominantly angry, like my Facebook feed has been. But the crowd was cheerful and polite and I couldn’t stop laughing at the clever signs. It was easy to talk to strangers. For a while now I’ve been growing slightly fearful of strangers, anticipating some sort of hostility or contempt. On Saturday I chatted all the way back on the train with my seatmate, Cindy, a preschool teacher who had been to the march. I love being able to talk to strangers and smiling at them. The march was an antidote to some sort of social toxin that has been accumulating in my system, in the air somehow.

I marched to get my own energy back and so I wouldn’t miss history. I marched for my children; my older one Adrian has lately been the marcher, but she had to work. I marched for, and with, my best friend from college. I marched because black lives matter, especially the lives of my friends. I marched because I don’t want the planet trashed or the DPAL built or the EPA gutted. I marched because I don’t want my Muslim friends having to register. I marched for my journo friends and a world of real facts, not alternative ones. I marched because I don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned. I marched because I love flowers and peaceful classrooms and playgrounds and streets for kids.

I cried for a little bit while marching. It felt like all these people had lifted a weight. We can do this. Si se puede.

Vision

Fasting is a spiritual discipline. Muslims do it every year during the month of Ramadan. Catholics do it every year during the 40-day season of Lent. Fasting’s purpose is to get one to think less about appetites and more about God, about our dependence on God. For Catholics, the fast of Lent is also understood as a period of waiting. The resurrection is coming, but the road to it is long, and suffering is going to happen along the way.

I am fasting this week as part of #Fast4Power, which I stumbled onto through social media. It struck me as a good way to hang out with people of faith as our country moves into a new era that will be shaped by lots of people with whom I vehemently disagree. More bluntly, I fear a time when it is socially acceptable to be mean. But the point here is not to spin out apprehensions and anxieties but think about how to be ready to resist whatever marks a retreat from the goals of justice and common good.

I have found fasting to be harder than I anticipated. The rules for fasting resemble those for a Ramadan fast: no eating between sunrise and sundown. Muslims are also expected not to drink liquids, but that was not asked here. In spite of the short days of January, it was difficult to go grocery shopping while fasting, hard to not hanker for some of the fragrant pea soup being served at Quaker meeting meal on Sunday. Ironically enough, I find myself thinking more about food. But then I have a chance to think about the power of the thought and how it comes to preoccupy me. Recognizing that it’s a thought and not an actual hunger is helpful, and a step toward letting go of the thought or countering it. These mental machinations are familiar to me from meditation, so it is like using mental muscles to redirect the flow of thought.

I have also found it helpful to reflect on my favorite Bible verse: The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (For those who don’t recognize it or unfamiliar with Christian scripture, it’s Galatians 5:22-23.) My self-control needs work, and that muscle too is getting exercised. Self-control also comes to my mind as I reflect on and remember the civil rights movement of the 1960s. What kind of training, courage, and self-control did it take to face police dogs and police with clubs and fire hoses? And those were just the legal barriers. We could ask Congressman John Lewis, who was there. I wasn’t, but I was born, so this is not history but memory. I was part of the larger web of connectedness, learning in my youth about the world.

The other part of #Fast4Power is community. It’s not just about the self. Ramadan is supposed to work in part because it builds awareness of ummah – the world Muslim community. It has certainly helped that my husband is doing this. The #Fast4Power organizers, We Say Enough, have a daily online meeting to provide food for thought. Some servings have been better than others; the poetry has been especially palatable, and the teaching about community has made me more aware of my white individualism. It’s not my agenda, and I am here in solidarity. Thinking about what solidarity means has been a good lesson.

Which comes back to fasting. As a spiritual discipline, its purpose is to express solidarity with those who don’t eat well or enough – those who are involuntarily fasting. Most of them, unsurprisingly, are women and children, according to the World Food Programme.Reflecting on the 795 million people in the world who are chronically is perspective-giving, well beyond American shores. It’s a basic exercise in empathy: not everybody lives like me.

Community simply means we are in this together. Given the multiplicity of interest groups and issues these days, I am not sure who is included in “we.” But I know this is true, courtesy of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.” My pre-sunrise tea came from England, but it surely wasn’t grown there. Today’s #Fast4Power question dealt with vision. I dream of a world where everyone has a beautiful and bountiful basket of fruit of the spirit, to sustain them when they hunger.

What do you dream of?