Companions on the Way

June 27, 2020

As I stepped into the patio this. morning, flocks of house finches and other small birds who had gathered at the new pigeon-proof bird feeder, scattered into the sky like flung confetti.  I felt a bit like St. Francis, with his bird companions.

Recently thoughts of “companions on the way,” upon which I reflected in an email sent from my Spanish Camino in 2010, have returned during this time of social isolation.

While I sat in the sun beside the cathedral in Santiago, “along came a French couple I´d met several times during the walk.  We finally exchanged names and emails.  I had been reflecting on the importance of companions on the pilgrimage and on the road of life.  How unexpected they sometimes are, and how important.  I thought about how no one goes with us all the way.  Some remain with us longer and become dearer, while others are with us for a short time, but may be no less dear and important in their own ways.”

Some companions are with us for most of our lives.  Some we would not have not chosen but seem to have been chosen for us.  There are some whose names we recall frequently and some whose names we have forgotten.   Some we mourn for having left us too soon, and some we will leave too soon.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Where I am going, you cannot follow,” which is what happens when our loved ones leave us.  He also said, “My peace I give to you,” and “I will be with you always.”  But the disciples were left alone, nevertheless.

Each of us must ultimately walk alone.  Our companions on the way may sometimes be thorns-in-our sides and sometimes treasures.  Some are soul-mates, and others are people with whom we just happen to be thrown together.

Eleanor from our cancer care-givers writing group wrote to me near the beginning of my 2010 Camino, that the entire group sent me energy and prayers during the silent meditation before writing.  I had forgotten this until I re-read those emails.  Perhaps it was their energy that kept me going during those first difficult days?  Most of the members of this group are still part of my life.  We gather every so often to talk and write. We have moved beyond the challenges that faced us as caregivers and we now live new lives and face new challenges.

I have three friends from high school – who were not my closest friends from those days – with whom I regularly keep in touch. Three of us, including me, have lost spouses. I treasure the continued presence of these companions from my youth, even though I have been blessed with a new husband with whom to share these late-life years.

Today is the birthday of my two children, born four years apart. Their father Ed died when they were in their early twenties.  They remain my companions in joy and grief as I share in their achievements and their sorrows.

Anne, my amazing library assistant, became one of my closest friends.  After a more than year-long struggle with cancer, that she chronicled with grace and insight through her CaringBridge account, she died suddenly at the end of April this year.

It has been hard to write about her.  I’ve tried to write about objects that remind me of her, like a beautiful bar of soap with the image of a bee with translucent wings pressed into it.  It is quite a marvelous construction.  I can hear her exclaiming over its beauty and ingenuity.  She gave this beautiful object to me, her friend, and now it sits beside my sink, used often during this time of frequent hand-washing, reminding me every day of her friendship and her love of life and beauty.

Oddly, it is often when I am walking that seemingly unconscious triggers call forth memories of friends and family, as vividly as the videos and pictures that also bring those long-gone to life. They are indeed with me always.

I am reminded of special kindnesses, even fleeting ones, often from strangers.  Sometimes a smile, a touch, a helping hand, or a sympathetic ear means so much.  On the other hand, a curt dismissal, an insult, or a refusal to help diminishes me.

It is easy to take out our frustrations on others, to blame to criticize, and to consider ourselves superior.  But that is not the way to promote harmony in this world that is already so full of hostility and hurt and so much in need of healing.  Anger begets anger, love, love.  So, let’s be thankful for our companions on the way, and try to respond both to those who hurt us and those who treat us with kindness, with love.

The birds, too, are our companions, even the greedy doves we try to keep from devouring the food set out for the smaller ones.  The pigeon-proof feeder allows the doves to scavenge the seeds spilled on the ground.  We no longer shout and wave our arms, scaring off the little birds as well as the doves.   All of our lives are happier now.

Life, Death, Taxes, Birthdays and Iguanas: April 15-20, 2020

Birthday Party via Zoom

April 15, 9:30 am

The birthday cake is in the oven.  I have twenty minutes to write.

Today is grandson Zia’s third birthday.  We will be celebrating soon via Zoom, with his family at home and his aunties in Dubai and Bangladesh.  This is not how we thought our lives would be today.

Three years ago, I was participating in a Good Friday pilgrimage in downtown Albuquerque, stopping at stations of the cross that represented the suffering of Jesus in our modern world: among them a women’s shelter, the county jail, and the courthouse where volunteers accompanied asylum-seekers to their hearings.  I was anxiously awaiting the birth of my first grandchild, who should have arrived the previous week.  During the readings at the women’s shelter my phone issued a silent flash.  I took a quick peek.  The long-awaited baby was on the way!  Suddenly this solemn Good Friday was filled with joy and anticipation.  Life and death on the same day.

I thought of Zia’s Grandpa Ed, whom he has never known, and how he would have been thrilled with this tax-day dividend, a gift from his youngest daughter.  And I thought of the second Grampy Kent at home, not yet aware of the news.  He would share grandparenting with me (the only biological grandparent).

Today I received an email from dear friend Jenny.  She lives in Australia, which has suffered the double whammy of devastating fires and now coronavirus.  She wrote that today is her mother’s 90th birthday.  She, her husband and her Mum celebrated at home with cake and several festive meals, shared with family and friends via Zoom. Jenny and Jim were family to us during our year in Melbourne thirty years ago.  Her Mum and Dad invited us to share the Christmas festivities with their extended family at their lovely cottage near the beach.  None of us could have predicted we would be celebrating the birthdays of a 90-year-old and a three-year-old via Zoom on this day in 2020.  In 1988 we had a computer, on which we typed letters, printed them, and then mailed from the post office.

I have been thinking of Noah and the Ark.  Like Noah, we do not know when our quarantine will end, nor do we know what the world will be like when we return to it.  Just as when we experience the death of a loved one, we wait for life to return to normal, eventually realizing that there will be no return to normal.   Life has forever changed; and we must painstakingly create a new normal.

For Noah and his family, the isolation on the ark was a chance for a fresh start. The sinful world of quarreling people had been washed away, drowned in the flood.  I suspect, sadly, that Noah’s new normal very quickly became the same-old-same-old, with all the faults and flaws of human nature all too soon returning.  How glad they must have been to exit the ark after forty days and forty nights, despite the challenges that lay ahead. 

[Buzzer went off: cake done. Here is a very short video of the birthday celebration.]

April 18, morning

I look at the April calendar, marked with events we won’t be doing in places we won’t be going.  My heart is heavy this morning.  I can’t believe that I mis-wrote Amazon (the river, not the gigantic online company that has become part of our everyday life) as Amazoon when I sent a link to my photos from the Amazon.  What kind of Freudian slip was this?  Amazoon – a zoo?  Are we all creatures in a zoo or museum as Brenda Shaughnessy imagines in “Gift Planet,” featured this morning on Knopf’s April “Poem a Day” imagines.  We live in a world shaped by humans, for better and for worse.  We are married to our planet Earth, and there is no divorce but death.   Or, perhaps it was Amazoom slipping into my fingers as I typed, reflecting our new life with Zoom – a virtual reality—is that an oxymoron?

Dear departed Beezus

Meanwhile our president, our leader, sows rebellion and dissent.  Divide and conquer is one of the oldest tricks in the book.  Wild dogs are on the loose, and we poor sheep shelter in place, trembling, under the care of an unreliable shepherd.  Have you ever seen an angry sheep – perhaps a ram?

April 15 has come and gone.  For the first time ever, I have not submitted my tax return. I am sure the government needs the extra money (which we always owe) and will use it wisely when it is finally received.

April 20, 2020, afternoon

Today is the five-month birthday of the second grandson.  It has been three months since I last held baby Rumi (named for the poet and mystic).  Even though I was present at your birth, we do not know each other the way I knew Zia, whom I visited for several days each month during his first year.  I long to hold this sweet baby body.  Smiling and waving and sending baby-talk through Facetime is not the same.

Baby Rumi at two months

Five days have passed since I began writing these reflections.  Every day is like another.   The sky is bluer than I’ve ever seen it.  I’m editing pictures from the Galápagos, now, and I find the inscrutable faces of the iguanas particularly fascinating.  They eye me with a sideways stare, their mouths are shaped like enigmatic smiles.  They are living descendants of the dinosaurs – of powerful, terrifying dragons and serpents – who in European tradition represent monstrous enemies to be tamed or slain, but who, especially in Chinese tradition, also represent wisdom.  What might you say to us, iguanas, in this time of coronavirus?  I am fascinated by your seemingly irreconcilable combination of beauty, ugliness, and mystery.  What can we learn from you?

Smiling iguana: What can we learn from you?

A New Beginning: Next Walk Italy

I am transitioning from the old Caminobleu.blogspot.com to WordPress, beause I could no longer easily publish from my phone or iPad while traveling. It will take awhile to learn to use this new platform. My next walk will be in Italy from the village of Teano to Rome along the Via Francigena with the Gruppo dei dodici. Both the new blog and the walk will be steps into the unknown.

For a video I made of this walk