Monday, February 28, 2011

"Tienes compañía"

More than ten years ago, I went online to track down a friend I hadn't seen in years. At the time, I was new to the whole Internet search thing. I don't think I'd ever entered the name of a person I knew as the criteria for such a search. I clicked on a few buttons, read a few screens, and found myself reading through a series of questions each one of which I answered with a resounding "Yes." 

The questions read something like - 
Have you always felt like you don't see the world the way everyone else does? 
Have you dreamed of...? Do you ever wish that you could...? 
Do you feel drawn towards...? Have you always imagined that you would...? 
Well, all the questions were in Spanish, so I answered "Sí." 
And at the end of all those questions was this statement: "Tienes compañia." 
You've got company. You are not alone. 
"Sign me up for that company," I thought. 
A few paragraphs later, my spirits sagged: "Not so fast, Gail. These questions are aimed at men who are considering dedicating themselves to becoming Jesuit priests."

Once I got over my disappointment, I pressed on in my search and found my long-lost friend. We renewed our friendship and have been in regular contact since then.

Ninety minutes after taking off from Barcelona two weeks ago today, I landed in the city of Valladolid - and there he was, that same friend, awaiting my incoming flight. With the customary kiss on each cheek, we began what would be the most important 48 hours of my journey. It was with this friend that I was about to learn that not only do I need compañia, but I already have it. Everywhere we went, everything we saw,  every conversation we had reminded me, showed me, proved to me that no matter how lonely I feel, no matter how convinced I am that I am all alone on this life journey of mine, I am not alone.

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that one of the greatest joys of my life is being alone. Solitude. Going to sleep and waking up alone in a hotel room makes me giggle with glee. I jealously guard "my alone time" every day. Packing a small bag of clothing, an even smaller pouch of cosmetic supplies, choosing a fistful of pens and journal with thirsty and empty pages - just the thought of going through that preparation process makes me smile both inwardly and outwardly. Waiting in the line at the security checkpoint, emerging on the other side with my boots, my computer, my jewelry, my boarding pass, and my dignity all layered in gray plastic bins, finding a seat near a window in the airport, and flipping to the first page of my journal while I await my first flight... now that's my version of an afternoon delight. Until this most recent journey to Valladolid, I thought that solitude, being alone was the quickest way to peace and strength and renewal for me. 

In the middle of a long conversation about spiritual exercises, faith, the Scriptures, and other topics that he knows I love to discuss at length, my friend said: "Gail, tú necesitas sentirte acompañada.¨ You need to feel accompanied. You need to know that you are not alone. Tears immediately flowed. I was glad it was already dark, so he didn't see me wiping them away. "Sign me up," I thought. 

Banana trees with their branches intentionally intertwined; they are pruned and cultivated in such a way that each tree is connected to the ones on either side of it. Apparently these trees, when in full bloom, form a canopy over the sidewalk, providing a wonderfully shady walkway during the summer's hottest hours. In the winter, the trees look gnarly and bare. I hope to be able to get back there during the spring or summer in order to see and experience the fruit of their interconnection.

Even the trees get it: "tienes compañía." You are not alone. Sure, each tree can provide shade by itself, but the effect of connected trees, the power of a community of trees is much greater.

One of us drank coffee. The other drank chamomile tea. 
One of us dispensed words of wisdom. The other listened attentively, tearfully, gratefully. 
One of us led the way. The other followed. 
I would like to think that for those 48 precious hours, we both felt closely accompanied.

The best part about being in Valladolid and Burgos - in rain and shine - was learning a simple and profound lesson: I was not alone; I am not alone; I will never be alone. I was heard and seen and welcomed - and I don't mean in the physical sense alone. My laughter, my tears, my stories, my silence, my questions, my doubts, my escape routes, my utter lack of contentment, my insistence on photographing every meal and cup of coffee, my copious note-taking - everything that I am, everything that I carried in my backpack and in my soul pack, it was all welcome. 


The hands that were pierced back then are the same ones that hold me now. 
He knew the sorrow of feeling alone and understands my sorrow.

This is the view from the office window of my dear friend. 

My bed was overseen by the Virgin and her child and that child grown up and nailed to the cross.
I was not alone, not even when I slept.

Valladolid can be a gray and rainy city; it certainly has been during my two visits there. 
So when the sun broke through the clouds, I pulled my camera out quickly and captured the beauty of the sky above that ancient city. 

SalTerrae - "salt of the earth" - the Jesuit editorial press in Valladolid.
If you read and understand Spanish, their website is fantastic.

The museum of sculpture in Valladolid. I wanted to stand and stare at those arches all afternoon, 
but the statues and alterpieces inside the building were what we had paid to see.
And they were worth far more than the price of admission. 

The plaza mayor in Burgos, Spain. 

Looking out the window of a restaurant in Burgos. 

My friend thinks I am sick - stricken with a progressive, aggressive, and terminal case of "Spainmania." 
After 25 years of acute symptoms, I have no choice but to agree with his diagnosis. 
I dream about Spain. I write about Spain. I talk about Spain to anyone who will listen.
I spend inordinate amounts of time looking at my photos of Spain 
and reading the journals I have kept there. 
But if Spainmania is a disease, I do not want to be cured.

When I returned to Charlotte last Monday, I pulled out the devotional book I read each morning, Jesus Calling. Because I hadn't taken it with me to Spain, I decided to flip back and read through each day's offerings for the days I'd missed. These are the first three sentences for February 14th, the day I arrived in Valladolid.  "Give yourself fully to the adventure of today. Walk boldly along the path of Life, relying on your ever-present Companion. You have every reason to be confident, because My Presence accompanies you all the days of your life - and onward into eternity."

In other words, "Tienes compañía."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Beautiful Barcelona

Several years ago, a friend of mine told me about El Camino de Santiago, a month-long pilgrimage that begins at the border of France and ends at the Cathedral of Saint James in the city of Santiago de Compostela in the northwest corner of Spain. The two main symbols of that pilgrimage are the shell and the arrow. The shell is the symbol of the pilgrimage, the pilgrim, and the journey itself. The arrow points the way, letting pilgrims know which way to turn, which path to follow - and lets them know that they are indeed on the right path.

On Friday, February 11th, just hours after my arrival in Spain, my dear friend, Judy, showed me her rooftop patio, a quiet place of respite above her lovely apartment in the Poblenou area of Barcelona. And there on the wall were the two symbols of El Camino. Two reminders to me that I am still on the journey and at that moment on that day, I was on the right path. I smiled and snapped a photo.

Later that same night, she and I went out for a walk near what was the Olympic village back in the summer of 1992. Above the street was this sculpture, this face looking down on us. Beautiful. Funny. Another perfectly timed and placed reminder: "Someone is watching over you - and smiling."

One of the many things that I love about Judy (and there are many) is how much she likes a good strong cup of coffee every morning. Followed by another good strong cup of coffee. Yup, she is a two-fisted coffee drinker... as am I. And she's not afraid to use real sugar in her real coffee lightened with real milk. She and I got along splendidly.

The first time I visited La Catedral de la Sagrada Familia was in August of 2002. That day there were no floors, just poured concrete slabs beneath our suspended scaffolding of a walkway. There were no walls at either end of the church and many holes in the ceiling where both sunlight and rain poured in. A lot has changed since then.

When I entered the church this time, I was rendered speechless. Senza parole. It is a truly breath-taking and spectacular sight. The walls, the floor, the windows, the columns, the staircases, the choir loft, the altar, the covering of the altar, the image of Christ on the cross, the splendor of the way the light hits that cross - it defies description. It moved me to tears and laughter and silence and praise - all at the same time. I took more than 200 photos.

Judy and I took an elevator to the top of the cathedral and walked down a rather long and twisting staircase. We stopped several times to take photos from the numerous windows and stepped out onto several small perches where we took photos of the city and of the church itself - which is still very much under construction.

After more than 100 years, La Sagrada Familia is still a work in progress. In our modern world where buildings, even the tallest skyscrapers, are built in weeks or months, the patience and trust and faith that keeps men and women working on this glorious building nearly 100 years after the death of its designer inspire me to continue to walk and work with faithfulness and determination on this my life's journey, 
this slowly and steadily progressing building project that is my own life. 

At one of the lower entrances to the building, there is a panel that highlights some of the stonemasons working to build this monumental place. Their eyes have seen great progress. Their fingers have been mashed and broken. Their spirits must soar when they step back and look up at the soaring towers, brilliant windows, and imposing columns. To be involved with such a hurculean task must be both humbling and life-affirming. I would imagine that, between back-straining tasks and hand-crushing mishaps, there must be moments when they think - "What I am building here will far outlive me. No one may know my name or what I did, but I know that I am participating in something far greater than me and the few stones that I have helped to shape."

As I walked around that building and that city, I was reminded that, although I am not building anything that large or impressive, what I am working on in my life - raising these two children I have been gifted with, teaching classes, leading retreats, counseling friends and family, and simply being a loyal friend and loving family member - what I do every day matters. Each moment matters. Every email, every phone call, every text, every hug, every visit, every word of encouragement, every prayer raised, every verse shared, every tear shed and wiped away, every story recounted and remembered, every smile - they are each and all part of something that is far greater, wider, deeper, more meaningful, and more important than I will ever know. 

Following our visit to La Sagrada Familia, Judy and I visited several museums, churches, restaurants, even a fortress or two. We stumbled upon a celebration of the patron saint of Barcelona, Santa Eulalia, and were dazzled by the parades of giants and a type of street performance that warrants its own future blog post. Judy is the consummate host and historian, regaling me with stories and history lessons and anecdotes that made my time there far more rewarding and enjoyable than it would have been if I had not been with her. I fear that the only thing I gave her was a newfound addiction to taking photos of her meals!  

The fortress at the top of Montjuic. 

The Monastery of Sant Pau del Camp, the oldest church in Barcelona.

The parade of giants that we saw twice in the same night and again the next day. 

One of the museums we visited had a mirrored sculpture on the roof. I hope the two lovers across the way weren't offended by the photos I snapped of them. Quite frankly, I don't think they noticed. The love they were expressing externally was what I was feeling internally: happy to be alive, happy to be there on that gorgeous afternoon, happy to be with someone I love dearly, and thrilled to be with The One I Love Most of All. 

 Can you see the line about a third of the way from the left edge of this photo where the mirror begins?
 There is my dear sister-friend, Judy.

One of my favorite sayings is an old one: "Time flies when you're having fun." And when I'm in Spain, I am almost always having fun and it seems like time flies even faster over there than it does here in the US. On Valentine's Day morning, I found myself strolling through the unexpectedly beautiful Barcelona airport, making my way to gate 95 for my flight to Valladolid where I would spend the next 48 hours with the same friend who told me about El Camino de Santiago years earlier and taught me the significance of its two symbols.  

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What peace feels like

At Misty Meadows, where my daugther does horseback riding, I stare up at the sky a lot. 
Leonardo DaVinci knew why: "When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return."

On the morning of the day before I left for Spain, Wednesday, February 9th to be exact, this is what I wrote in my journal:

"This must be what peace feels like. Rest. Trust. Faith. Releasing the reins of this trip and my life. Move ahead in faith. With joy. All is well. All shall be well. All has always been well. Nothing to do but trust, obey, walk. 

In front of the terminal at CLT airport on the morning of my departure. 

Not a great weather forecast for Valladolid or Madrid. I hope and pray that things change but I'll have my umbrella and lots of zip loc bags, just in case. I'm looking forward to seeing how I do with the vest: keep it on. keep it zipped. keep my jacket on over it. And stay deep in prayer. Close to the Lord. Open eyed. Full heart. Low expectations. High hopes in the Lord. 

I've never felt this settled, this calm, this close to a trip. 
Peace. Glorious peace. 
Trust. Heartfelt trust.
Hope. Gentle joy.
Calm. Centered.
Loved. Remembered. It's all good."


The international terminal of Madrid Barajas Airport. 
It's one of my favorite sights in the whole world: it means I'm back at home.

Sitting at the gate awaiting my flight from Madrid to Barcelona. After only 3 or 4 hours of sleep. 
This is what early bleary-eye, hungry, soul-deep peace looks like.

Landing in Barcelona. I love sitting above or very close to the wings of the airplane - which happened on every flight I took. PLUS - on both transatlantic flights, I had a window seat and no one sitting next to me. Glory! Room to spread out, stretch my legs, and not worry about anyone reading over my shoulder as I journaled or thinking I was crazy for taking so many photos out of the window.

On the morning of February 10th, Steve and the kids drove me to the airport here in Charlotte where we said our "farewells," took a couple of photos, and I was on my way. On yet another journey. Back to Spain. My itinerary that day included several flights - Charlotte-Miami-Madrid-Barcelona with two or three hour layovers at each stop. Security checks. Passport control. Pulling out my zip-loc bag of liquids and my laptop, taking off my boots, my jacket, and my ever-present vest, putting it all back on and away. Questions in English and Spanish. Forms to fill in. Correct change to pull out. At various points along the way, I would do what I refer to as a shoulder check: I sit still, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and let my shoulders drop. In tense moments, I have found my shoulders high and tight. Not so on that day: my shoulders were low and loose all day, all night, and on into the next day. The same word kept coming back: peace.

Looking out of the window of seat 27J on board flight 37, Madrid to Dallas.
One last look at the sky above Madrid.


On the morning of February 21st, just after midnight, my mother picked me up at the airport here in Charlotte and brought me home - where I was met only by the excited barking of my funny little dog, Maya. Steve and the children were in Charleston, South Carolina at a tennis tournament (where Daniel finished 3rd in his age group, losing only one match all weekend!). I awoke early yesterday morning, still on Spain time, still surrounded and filled with peace. I had the whole day to unpack, think, pray, reenter my home and my life at a quiet, slow, solitary pace.

The one thought that returned to mind over and over again all day long was the same one that occurred to me 13 days earlier: "this must be what peace feels like."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Turning for home...

Three days left. Time flies, as they say, whether or not you are having fun.
In this case, I am having lots and lots of fun.

Here are a few more photos, offered up as proof...

 The cafeteria of The Palacio de Musica, Barcelona

 Parade of giants, Barcelona

Now THAT is a tall man. Big hands too...

Castellers - towers of people that walked across la plaza de Jaume, Barcelona. Amazing!!! 

Dessert at Origens, Barcelona. After a most delicious lunch. 

Iglesia de Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona. 

Barcelona airport - awaiting my flight to Valladolid. 

Plaza Mayor, Valladolid. A drizzly, cold night - 
warmed by one of the gentlest, funniest, smartest people I have ever known. 
Sabes quien eres.

 Las Huertas, Burgos, Spain.

Friendships deepening, restaurants, museums, cathedrals, monasteries, bars, bakeries, paper stores, rain, sunshine, wind, the city, the beach, teeny tiny villages, books, gardens, movies, laughter, tears, stories, names, faces. A little bit of everything. Above all, beneath it all, in all, through all, and for all - deep, deep gratitude.