My oven no longer works; the whoosh of gas suddenly gone silent. My reading glasses have disappeared, and my identity was stolen without so much as a sound. It is always something my good friend reminds me. Adding to the swirl of things falling apart, the radiator heat in our building keeps turning off, rather indiscriminately, in the midst of winter snowstorms and single digit temperatures. A constant chill loiters, unwanted, in my home.
In a funny twist, the virtual Camino de Santiago pilgrimage that I began on New Year’s Day is starting to feel like the easiest thing I do. It demands only one thing of me: walking. (Oh, and an openness to spiritual renewal). With a solid 451.4 more miles to go in my 480.8 mile-trek, I trust that I will have ample opportunity to let my feet lead me back to my heart.
Right now, my boots are pointing in the direction of more laughter. I simply do not get enough. I’m not sure any of us do, really, given all our isolation.
My spirit is craving more giggles, more snorts and chortles, more howling in that doubled over, no-words-coming-out-of-your-mouth kind of way. Laughter that catches us unaware, that saddles right up alongside the brokenness of our days and heals us.
I found that kind of laughter in a cemetery once, of all places. I’d gone to visit my aunt who was buried in the town near where she had lived, loved and farmed. With no more than 700 residents, the town has one Catholic church, grammar school, post office, and a handful of bars. Turn right past the church, I told myself. Left at the next stop sign and then straight up the hill. That’s what I remembered from her funeral the year before. I refused to turn on my GPS.
Twenty minutes later, as I drove around in what felt like an endless loop, proving to myself yet again that I really can get lost anywhere(!), a hill appeared before me. I headed straight for it, relieved to finally see tombstones. It was early March, and the large swaths of frozen snow took me by surprise. I tried in vain to hop over them in my flats, but I could hear my aunt yelling down from above: “Where in heaven’s name are your socks and your boots??”
What I remember most from her funeral was standing under a cluster of pine trees, watching my brothers escort my mother to the casket. They walked slowly and deliberately on the icy tundra. The sun shone brightly that December morning, a vibrant blue Minnesota sky and snow-covered hills stretching out before us. I pulled my son in close to me as tears streamed down my cheeks. My aunt was one of the few in my mother’s inner circle. My mother’s loss suddenly gutted me, especially since she is the eldest of her two sisters and deceased brother.
Despite my soon-to-be frostbit toes, I crisscrossed that tiny cemetery three times, from pine tree to pine tree, from one snow-pressed footprint to the next. Each time, the tombstone was a total bust. Alone under that same blue Minnesota sky, I stopped my mad searching and stood still. “I can’t find your grave anywhere,” I whispered to my aunt. “But I know you are not really here. You are everywhere.”
I looked down those same rolling hills, closed my eyes, and prayed out loud right where I was standing. “Please watch over my mom,” I began. “I don’t know how you did it, but you and your sister always made my mom laugh. Giggle, even.” A sense of warmth came over me. “Please,” I prayed. “Can you watch over my mom and bring her more joy? She misses you.”
I wiped the tears from my face, dashed back to my car and cranked up the heat. I followed the gravel road to the exit, not more than 50 feet, when I looked up and saw another cemetery directly across the street. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” The words fell out of my mouth, sounding like my mom when my brothers and I were little. How many cemeteries does a town need?
I drove under the metal archway and straight up that hill. I knew in an instant that this is where my aunt was buried. Hopping out of my car once again, I was greeted by the sound of wind chimes. I turned my head and spotted them, not far from where I had parked. What a lovely way to honor someone, I thought, and then promptly headed off in the opposite direction.
Once again, I crisscrossed that cemetery, from pine tree to pine tree, hopping over frozen snow. Each time, the tombstone was a total bust. Finally, I walked straight toward those wind chimes, soft and low, singing out over the rolling hills.
“For the love of God,” I hollered. I stood next to my aunt’s grave and laughed so hard I cried.
I called my cousin, my aunt’s daughter and my oldest friend, and regaled her with my escapade. She howled with laughter as tears streamed down my face. I think that is the real beauty of life: that we can laugh even as we mourn.
Saint Ignatius taught that God can be found in high-highs and low-lows—and that both are holy. He named one consolation, the other, desolation. He understood that one was not better or more desirable than the other. They both happen many times in our lives. What matters, he suggested, is how we use them, how we allow sorrow and joy to break us open, to restore and transform us. To embolden us to live our lives more fully.
In this unrelenting time, with the global pandemic and loss around every corner, my prayer is that laughter and joy, wherever and however they find us, lift us up and lighten our loads. That they propel us forward, one step at a time, on our own faith walks.
Last night, after logging in 1.36 miles on my Camino app, my son came bounding into my room, breathless. “Mom, I found your reading glasses!” Where? I asked. Underneath the bathroom vanity. “That’s a first,” he deadpanned, and we burst into laughter.