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Archive for July, 2017

Idaho in June

There are two ways to live your life.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as though everything is a miracle.  Albert Einstein

It was late in May, on the plane from Amsterdam to Bilbao, Spain, en route to our eight-day Camino trek along the Basque Coast, that Cam and I first heard the name.  We were sitting with a family who lived in the Netherlands, the mother, from Brussels, in our row, and the father, who was Scottish, and their two middle-school-aged children in the seats in front of us.  They all spoke English and our conversation was lively and broad-stroked, traversing a world of subjects, and, yet, it kept returning again and again to the name.  Isla.  The daughter’s name was Isla.  Neither Cam nor I had ever heard this name before.  We liked the way it rolled off our tongues, easy and free.  “It’s beautiful,” I told the twelve-year-old girl.  And Cam agreed.  If we were still having kids, we added, we’d name our daughter Isla.  And I wrote it down in my journal, the long letter i, the silent s.  “Like island,” the father chimed in, “a Scottish name of strength.”  For some reason, we couldn’t get enough of it, were still circling back as we exited the plane and walked through the jet bridge to Bilbao’s airport, the family at our side.  “Good-bye,” we said to our new friends.  “Good-bye, Isla, with the beautiful name!”

And I brought that name, still fresh on my tongue, out west with me, when I traveled to Idaho three weeks later.  It was the tenth of June and the baby, our almost-five-year-old grandson Viren’s sister, would be born a few days later.  She already had a name, one that our son and daughter-in-law had chosen six months earlier, one that would remain a secret to us until her birth on Monday morning.  So in no way was I being a pushy grandmother, intending to influence what had already been decided, when I told the family that Grandpa and I had heard the most beautiful of names on our trip to Spain.  “Isla.  Have you heard it before?!?”  Our daughter-in-law said that she had heard of it, and that was that.  No more mention of Isla.  Until two days later on that Monday morning.  Viren and I had spent Sunday night at our favorite motel, La Quinta, a familiar treat for the two of us when I visited Idaho, and he was still asleep when my cell phone rang.  “Mom, you guessed it,” our son exclaimed.   “Her name is Aila.  Except its the Finnish version with a silent first a.  We chose the name months ago”  It took a moment for me to register.  She was born, and she was healthy, and her name was Aila.  How could that be?!?

How could that be?!?  Life is amazing.  Life is filled with miracles.  Our Aila is beautiful and I will tell her the story of her name, how her grandparents, on a trip to Spain, fell in love, with the name Aila and the possibility of a girl with that name.  I will tell her that we didn’t know it then, but she was that girl we dreamed of that day on the plane a few weeks before her birth.

There are the miracles, the ones that cause your jaw to drop in silent awe, the ones that are too big for tidy explanations.  There were other jaw-dropping moments the day of Aila’s birth.  Our daughter-in-law and son wanted a little time with Aila before the two of us, Grandma and Viren, arrived at the hospital, so it was downtown to the fountain we headed, the place where we throw our pennies and make our wishes.  And I, the Grandma with the purse filled with coins, dug in and pulled out a handful for Viren, enough pennies for a whole family of wishes.  And I noticed one seemed different.  And I put it aside, and later at breakfast before our drive to the hospital, I held it up to the light.  And I never hold pennies up to the light, but I did that morning.  And I gasped.  It was an old penny, a Grandma of a penny, and it’s birth year was my birth year, 1956.  And I knew that this penny, along with the story of her name, was meant for Aila.

And maybe it is easy to open to the miracles on a day when a baby is born, when you witness her brother first glimpsing her tiny face, and her mother holding her as if she has done this forever.  Maybe it is easy to remember that life itself is a miracle when you glimpse tiny fingers and tiny toes and the perfection of a newborn being.  But the sun rises every morning and the sky is filled with stars at night and there is the moon that we can follow in its monthly cycles, and every day births something new.  It is all a miracle, the moments that seem extraordinary and the ordinary moments as well.  The evening of Aila’s birth, we all gathered back at the hospital, in the suite of Aila and her parents — the aunt and uncle and almost-two-year-old cousin Addie, the grandparents, and, of course, Aila’s brother, Viren.  And we broke open the sparkling apple juice and we cut slices of the chocolate ice cream cake and we toasted our newborn baby and we toasted her parents and we toasted her family  — and toddler Addie fell quickly in love with her newborn cousin and learned to say Baby Aila’a beautiful name and ate a whole adult-sized piece of the ice cream cake and we laughed and we were loud and we were quiet too, and it was all quite ordinary.  And it was all quite extraordinary.  And it was all a miracle.









Welcome to the world, Baby Aila!!!

Our family in Moscow, Idaho, savoring the miracles, the ordinary and the extra-ordinary moments:  June 2017

El Camino del Norte

(Transcribed and slightly edited from an e-mail I wrote in the midst of an eight-day walk in northern Spain at the end of May, 2017.)



Uncover the courage that lies beneath your fears.  Joan of Arc

We are here to love each other.  That is why you are here.  That is what life is for.  Maya Angelou

Body work is soul work.  Marion Woodman

Dear friends,

It is early morning in this five-hundred-year-old farmhouse and the sun has not yet risen over the fields and the woods on the outskirts of the mountain town of Gernika, Spain.  I wonder what we’ll be eating for breakfast.  It is not the most exciting meal of the day here in the Basque country of northern Spain.  It is usually just bread and olive oil and a piece of fruit, but this lodging is an organic farm run by a sweet couple in their forties and I am hungry and I have high hopes.  And right now, before the family rises to greet us, I have the time to write.  But what do I want to write?  I am still digesting the wisdom from the gifts I received seven months ago when my friend Mary and I trekked north on a three-week pilgrimage along the Atlantic coast of Portugal and through the medieval towns of Spain to Santiago Compostila.  And now, here I am again, on another Camino adventure, this time with my husband Cam, in the midst of an eight-day walk following the yellow arrows and sea shell symbols on the first leg of El Camino del Norte from the town of Irun on the French border to the Basque capital city of Bilbao where we’ll fly back home again after more than a week of carrying all that we need in packs on our backs.

I’m thinking now of the words a fellow pilgrim shared with Mary and me last October as we sat at the breakfast table in the Spanish town of Finisterre looking out over the Atlantic Ocean on the day we were preparing to catch a bus, then a train back to Lisbon as our three-week walk was winding down.  He said with the smile of one who had walked many a Camino that our pilgrimage wasn’t ending, that this was just the beginning.  And we both understood what he meant.  We got it, that life, every day of it, every step of it, is a pilgrimage and it is our job to stay present and aware, to look for and appreciate the miracles, to do our best to love this world we inhabit.  So, in some ways, this current eight-day pilgrimage is no different, just more opportunity to expand into love.  And yet, it is different, too, than our day-to-day-at-home living.  It is an adventure with clear intention, and few distractions.  It is ordinary life on steroids, magnifying for us what is possible if we pay attention.

I think that Cam, who hasn’t experienced the magnifying-glass effect of a Camino before, is more astounded than me by the way our needs are provided with ease and perfection.  When we are parched, desperately craving water, out of the blue sky and thin mountain air, there it is, around the next turn in the trail, a tavern selling the coldest best-tasting agua con gas (sparkling water) you could imagine.  When Cam and I tell a day-long pilgrim companion, a twenty-year-old from a small village in northern Italy, that Italian food is our very favorite, and, our young Italian friend replies in detail about the wonders of his family’s cooking, it has to happen.  In the middle of a mountain hamlet — not even a town or a village, just a few sheep and cow farms — a restaurant appears, in the golden light of dinnertime, after a long day of climbing up and down mountains in the heat, right in the midst of Basque country where Basque food seems to be the only fare served up, an Italian restaurant, where the chef prepares for us the most sensual meal of seafood pasta and grilled vegetables and homemade bread and local olives and garden greens we have ever tasted.  When we walk into a bar for a drink of cold water, a group of older men are watching a sport event on the television screen, a world-class bike race, and the American who Cam has followed for a decade is crossing the finish line in first place, right at that moment.  When my pen runs out of ink, I don’t even flinch.  One is handed to me by the young Canadian pilgrim leaning against the post in the seaside town of Getaria.  It is like that when we are present and allowing, the world opens up with its generosity  — and a pilgrimage reminds us of this.

And then there are the people.  Mary and I experienced it on our Portuguese Camino last October, the kindness of strangers that was palpable and heartbreakingly beautiful.  And now, Cam and I are experiencing it also.  Towns are farther apart in the Basque country of northern Spain, but when we approach one, the people show up for us, as if by magic.  On our most strenuous day of hiking thus far, over mountains with very little shade and blazing sun and heat rising above ninety-degrees, our water supply was waning in the late afternoon and Cam was ahead of me, rounding a corner toward the downhill that would take us into Markina and the promise of something cold to drink and a place to rest our overheated bodies before continuing the journey uphill again to our destination.  I was whining to myself and frankly wondering whether I would whither or wilt or just give up, when a shirtless man, my age or older, came dancing down the trail behind me, a local resident of Markina out for a walk who spoke Basque and Spanish, a little French, but no English.  And he walked with me, and somehow we communicated as he perked me up and kept me going until I caught up with Cam.  And then I, in my broken Spanish, asked him his name.  “Sante,” he said.  “Like Santiago!”  His name was saint, and he was my saint, one of the many that we have met along the way.

And the fellow pilgrims have been a joy.  There is the British couple in their forties who are writers and funny and kindred spirits.  And the Polish couple our age.  He doesn’t speak any English and very little Spanish, but this doesn’t stop him.  He plunges into huge conversations with gusto and an abundance of joy and you get the gist, that he loves his wife and his family and the students he teaches, that adventure feeds his spirit.  He has tied a pine cone onto the bottom of his pack and it wags like a happy tail as he marches ahead of us.  There is the twenty-five-year-old police officer from Frankfort who is wearing Cam’s knee brace and walking slowly and filling us with hope for the future, with his world view that is expansive and his kindness that knows no borders.  There are people from Germany and Australia, a French family, a Danish and American walking together.  There are three old men from Barcelona and two young women from the south of Spain.  There is the tall handsome man from Paris who stepped out of his home and hasn’t stopped walking for nearly two months, some of it along the sea where he has allowed himself to be polished smooth.  He is a bright light and I felt the glow of it in his presence.  Cam and I are appreciative beyond measure to meet these people, to hand them one of my angel cards, simple cards with a single word of inspiration, appreciative to connect in big and small ways.

And our days!!!  They stretch out long and are filled with an openness that just can’t be contained in an embrace or a game plan.  We study our route in the morning at the breakfast table, decide where to stay for the night, then abort the mission when something better comes along.  We have walked farther than expected twice.  Three days ago, we arrived at our agra-touristo house in the mid-afternoon, cancelled our reservation and the certainty of a room of our own and walked out into the sublime early evening sun shining over the mountain farms.  And, three hours later, with some trepidation and a good dose of delight plunged into our very first hostel bunk- room experience.  We have moved through a landscape of absolute beauty — the sea, the mountains, the country roads, the woodland paths.  And it all has been an adventure, an adventure under the magnifying glass of life lived with focus, a breathtaking adventure.  And it has taxed our breath, this breathtaking adventure, up and down, up and down, all day, sometimes through relentless heat.  And perhaps this is the most spiritual part of all, how our bodies, our beloved bodies have risen to the occasion.  The first two days, my quad and calf muscles hurt so much that I could barely climb the stairs at night.  Now it is no effort.  And I have learned to dunk my head under the water fountains that occasionally show up along the way, to wet my whole body down.  My pack is feeling lighter.  We are persisting!!!  And now, I am feeling bittersweet.  Two more days of walking and then we’ll be flying home.  I don’t want it to be over.  And it’s not.  This day is opening up for us, opening up with the light pouring in the window and a rooster crowing and birds singing their Spanish bird songs.  It will be a long day of walking, cooler after last evening’s thunderstorm.  And there will be magical moments and human kindness — I just know it.  And there will be beauty around each corner if we are open.

Love, Helen











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