My Story

The Pilgrimage Question

Why do you walk?

It is the most common question I got before I left. It is the question the old woman asks me now. She is from Bogota, Columbia. She too is a pilgrim.

"I am on pilgrimage," I tell her.

"Yes," she smiles, "but why do you walk? What is there at Compostela?" I am not sure what she is asking. I start to explain that it is an ancient pilgrimage site. She nods and waves her hand impatiently, "Of course, yes, I know this. What is there for you? ¿Porque caminas? Why do you walk?"

This question has gotten more and more difficult for me to answer. I think I had an answer when in the planning stages. I think I had an answer after buying my ticket. But the last week before I left words abandoned me and the only ones left were, "because I need to go."

There is something terribly lonely about the path, even though there are other pilgrims on it. Perhaps because there are other pilgrims on it. Days 5 and 6 since I left home are so lonely, and the ache in my chest is so heavy that I am not sure I will make it.

My muscles and feet are fine.

And meal times are times of beautiful connection.

But there are lots of empty spaces. Some are for thoughts, some for prayers, some for just being. Some swallow me up and threaten to sadness.

So much is beautiful.

So much is wonderful.

So much is glorious.

So much is plodding in the heat, in the wind, putting one foot in front of the other up a hill while carrying a pack.

I left home six days ago, and the question is asked of me daily on the road, in the pilgrim houses, and the answer has buried itself so deep inside that all I have to offer by way of explanation is completely unsatisfactory. I walk because I am a pilgrim and I need to know what that means.

Beginning (Again)

I am not sure exactly when the desire to pilgrimage was planted in me. I don't know how long it incubated and then grew. I do know that it hasn't disappeared. There are things I hear on pilgrimage that I cannot hear any other way, any other time, or anywhere else. Pilgrimage is a great metaphor for Life. However, it is not Life. That means that I require the actual living of Life after a pilgrimage to begin to understand what I learned while walking.

It has been about 10 months since I left for Portugal to begin walking The Camino. I wanted the first stamp in my pilgrim passport/credential to be in Lisbon. The geography matched the landscape in my heart. I wanted to see the broken pieces, I wanted to witness the renewal.

Cobblestone sidewalk Lisbon Portugal pilgrimage

Lisbon is a city built of rubble.

The three biggest natural disasters to hit the city happened all on the same day in 1755. First, there was an earthquake that brought down many of the main structures. Scientists estimate that quake was between 8.5 and 9 and that it lasted for 3 minutes, collapsing stone walls, demolishing filled churches and opening up 2 meter-wide gaps in the streets. The shaking ground caused candles to fall over and fires tore through Lisbon and surrounding areas burning wooden structures. It took 5 days to get the fires under control.

The epicenter of the quake was in the Atlantic Ocean. Townspeople trying to escape falling debris and fire ran to the docks. Within 45 minutes of the earthquake the first of 3 tsunami waves hit those docks. The wall of water was 9 meters high when it reached the city, the worst recorded tsunami to hit Europe. 90% of the buildings were destroyed. 75,000 people in Lisbon died as a result of the 1755 earthquake.

How do you recover from something like that? Everything was broken. Everyone was broken. Every single person left alive was grieving someone, grieving home, grieving.

The mayor surveyed the rubble and said,

"Now.

Today.

Here.

tile Lisbon Portugal pilgrimage

We rebuild.

Bury the dead.

Heal the living.

Gather the pieces and start again."

The roads in Lisbon are cobblestone streets, but they are not made of big stones like in other cities. The stone streets are made of smaller rocks. The sidewalks are also built of bits of stones. The buildings went up quickly too. Providing dwellings kept the remaining population from illness. There was no time for decorative carving or for painting these new buildings. Lisbon was known for tiles and many of them were still whole. In fact, they had piles of them, so as buildings went up the exteriors were covered with those stacks of tiles.

Lisbon is a city built of rubble. There are bits of pieces everywhere. And it is beautiful.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when a pilgrimage begins. Is it the day we start walking from a specific point? Is it when we start packing? Or when we first realize we have the idea? I'm not sure it's possible to clearly identify the beginning, however, once we get started, each day is a decision to start anew.

Every day is a pilgrimage.

Every day we get up again, no matter how sore or broken.

Every day we begin again.

We gather the broken pieces and make a way.

We build atop the rubble.

And Life is Beautiful.       

Invisible Stories, India Part 1

One of the first decisions a storyteller makes is where to begin the story. Do I begin at the beginning and trace the events chronologically? That might make the story easier to follow. Do I begin in the middle, drawing you quickly into the action? Do I dance around the edges unfolding the back story and the forward action in concert? I want to take you with me. I want to immerse you in this India Story.

But I can't.

The story is too big to tell, too deep and wide to hold.
And so, He hid the pieces inside the people.
The people.
That we would reach for one another and become
The poem.
~Michelle Winter, 2016

I entered into a long parade of stories invisible to me. I couldn't see the beginning. All I could do was reach out my hand and try to catch some shimmering confetti, pieces of Truth, as they flew by.

I missed much, but there were pieces of blue and green: women with gentle hands who offer kindness and healing; a girl who sets aside her need for rest to support her broken friends; women who have given up their lives to create a home and a family for the hurting.

There were pieces of red: men and women with fire in their eyes and hearts who have left their homes (some from other cities, some from other countries) to fight for justice and to rescue those who cannot fight.

There were pieces of orange: a feisty woman determined to pour herself out for the least of these; a quiet man hoping to change the world one person at a time.

And yellows, and golds: children who hold on to life and to one another, a middle aged woman reaching around the world to connect people who can be more effective together.

But, all that would come later. On the day we landed in India, we had been traveling for 36 hours and still had a drive ahead of us to the hotel. The streets were noisy, but the sounds organized themselves into music as we drove. There was heat, and breeze, colorful curbs and buses, the fog and stain of diesel, crowds, curry, lost luggage and a red alert for terrorist activity in the area. 

This is my first day, the landing day:

   After A Hard Day, Rest    Michelle Winter ©2016 acrylic on 20x24" canvasboard

After A Hard Day, Rest Michelle Winter ©2016 acrylic on 20x24" canvasboard

And so, perhaps there is a beginning after all. This is the only story I can tell. It is my story of how I danced in the parade of love and compassion in India...if only for a few steps along the way. 

Take Me Deeper: Transform Purposefully

This was a tough one. I admit that this one took me significantly longer than one week. Most of that time was spent wrestling. Here are the verses for the week:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. ~Phi 2:12-13

I wanted to show that transformation is a partnership, God has a part and I have a part. But, it is a grossly unequal partnership. I considered many, many possibilities, but struggled to find something that highlighted the inequality while also highlighting the connection. Until I remembered this photo I took of my daughter when she was a toddler, dancing on her papa's feet:

I love this photo. I used have used it in various ways in my work, and I used it in this blog post. Olivia was a delighted and willing partner, but she wasn't really walking yet. Todd had to hold her from above and below for the dancing partnership to work. The verses for this week reminded me of  this: I have a part in working out my salvation, but God carries me from above and below.

Then, I got stuck. I couldn't move forward, couldn't decide on colors, size, anything. Finally, I realized that this photo reminded me a lot of my relationship with my dad. We had a complicated and often difficult relationship. For a long time, I thought he was the villain in my story. Then I chose love and our relationship began to heal. Last year, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. I packed up the kids and our school books and spent a few months with him. He blew my world apart. I prayed Life for him, and instead he gave Life to me. He healed every hurt. It turns out that I knew nothing of the man he was, that I had made judgments that only a self-righteous teenager can make. The whole time I thought I was building a bridge to him, he had been the one building bridges to me. He was doing the heavy lifting, I was just doing the walking. And just when I was getting to know him, he died.

This father-thing, this carrying, this is what God does for me. This is what my husband does for my son. This is what my dad did for me. I wanted to honor this effort in some way. I decided I wanted to write into the quilt the text of some of the letters my father and I had exchanged. I sat down and read through those letters. For the first time, I saw. I saw him loving me. I saw his humor, his values, his bridge-building. It was a hard week. A good week.

 The quilt before adding text.

The quilt before adding text.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I wanted to write his words on my quilt. I tried photocopying, but his script was so spidery it didn't come through. I tried making it into a font. I tried out various fabric markers and dye/paint applicators. I ended up writing my father's words in my hand. I mixed white acrylic paint with fabric medium and used a squeeze bottle to apply it.

I pieced this quilt in oranges. I had intended to do it in blues and I'm not sure what happened. The last quilt I posted here was also in oranges and yellows. Maybe I'm in an orange period. In the color symbolism I use, orange is a symbol for mercy. Perhaps that best describes this unequal partnership. It's all mercy.

The End of the World

This is the season of the Little Apocalypse. The word apocalypse means "unveiling," and for a few weeks at this time of year the readings in many churches revolve around the end times. Even churches that do not use a prescribed reading program often preach sermons on the End Times during this season. Not everyone notices that, but it is purposeful. We end the year with the end in mind, with our eyes on the far horizon. I love that the American holiday of Thanksgiving falls at the end of the Church Calendar. The metaphors are so fitting, and I am a lover of good metaphors. We gather together and share a feast just as we will gather in Heaven around the Wedding Feast. We speak aloud our gratitude for the mercies of the previous year, just as we will be overcome in the Presence of the Beautiful One and shout aloud our gratitude and praise. 

And it will be good.

This morning I opened my eyes to a new day and a New Year. It is the first day of Advent. But this day is also a part of the Little Apocalypse. The readings for this day are from Jesus' last discourse:

Jesus said to his disciples: Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: "Watch!"

So, we start with the end, with an unveiling. Really, isn't everything an unveiling? God is always opening our eyes, always connecting dots for us. Our lives are filled with endings, that turn out to be beginnings, that turn out to be unveilings. I know (and love) so many people who have struggled this year with endings, truly devasting endings, and I have seen God unveil Himself to them, I have seen the green shoots of beginnings growing through the ashes. This turn of the seasons reminds us to hope.

And speaking of watching and gatekeepers, there was a gatekeeper assigned by blood to keep the watch at the temple gate. He was a righteous man. When it fell to him to burn incense and offer up the prayer for the nation of Israel, he took his job seriously. He entered in and fervently prayed for his people and begged that the Messiah would come. To this prayer he joined his wounded heart. He was childless and he knew the ache of desire for a son. He prayed from his belly, from the very depths of himself. He cried out for them all, "Send us a Child!" I don't know if Zechariah knew he was praying two prayers, one for himself and one for his people, but God answered both of them.

I am fascinated by this Advent-man, this Preparer of the Way. We know from Psalm 50 (among many others) that a man the Bible calls "righteous" has offered his heart to God along with  obedience and gratitude. I read through several chapters in First Chronicles to see what Zechariah's duties might have been. Here are some of them: he was to keep watch at the gate, to share duties with his brothers, to burn the incense, to hold the key, to take care of the linens, care for the flour, wine, oil, incense and spices, to mix the spices, bake the bread, and sing day and night. I see many of my daily chores in this sacred list.

What if I who am also called out of my endings to keep watch, what if I also blessed each moment? What if I said Grace, or said a blessing before getting out of bed, before washing the laundry or the dishes, before baking and cooking? What if I sought to make each moment sacred by offering up my thanks and praise throughout the day? What if I sang day and night, the song of longing, the song of the redeemed, a song of sorrow, a song of hope and thanks. Would my heart then be prepared to receive the Gift that is coming? This is my intention this Advent season. I will fail often, but I am overwhelmed with need for the Beautiful One to unveil Himself and make a beginning from my endings, so I look forward to this Advent, following in the steps of Zechariah.

The Remembering Time

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Hebrews 12:1

November is the Remembering Time. These early days in particular are dedicated to reflecting on the "great cloud of witnesses." For me, this is valuable as a reminder that I have never been left to take this journey alone. God has provided persons for every step. I have been mentored by the faithful lives of those mentioned in the Bible: Joseph forgave great betrayals; Eve's pro and con list often looks a lot like mine; Elijah spent himself to exhaustion in service; Moses gave up his life and then gave up his life and then did it again...and again. I have been accompanied by the lives and writings of St. Teresa, St. Francis, George Mueller, Henri Nouwen and so many others. I have been taught by faithful family members and members of my husband's family, by people I have only met for a few minutes and a couple of people who know me well and still call me "friend."

And what do these witnesses do? They inspire us to continue to move forward. They remind us to be. Today I am myopic. I can't see far and deep into the story, but I don't have to. God has placed witnesses close by. And standing on either side of me are some beautiful examples. The people who bookend me--my children and my father--inspire me. Here are two creations inspired by them.

"Braving the Tides" is an art quilt I did of my boys. My oldest son, Gabe, is a special needs kid. Every time he encounters a new situation he slips his hand into his younger brother Nick's hand. On the first day of Junior High group at church, Nick walked into the room full of excitement that he was going to make new friends. He is a very social kid and he loves people. He is also very socially aware. Just as he was approaching a group of 7th grade boys, Gabe slipped his hand into his. I watched them from the door. Nick never let go of Gabe's hand, even though I am sure he knew it could be social suicide. I watched them for a long time. Later, when I came back for them, they were still holding hands. That night I told Nick how proud I was of him for holding onto Gabe for as long as Gabe needed him. Nick said, "Why wouldn't I? He is my brother." I thought about how much Gabe trusts Nick. How he knows he can lean on him when he is scared. And I thought about how much Nick is willing to sacrifice for Gabe.

 "Braving The Tides" ©2008 Michelle Winter. In this interpretation, the boys are golden, almost glowing in the twilight, while the tides swirl around them. The waters are at once beautiful and unpredictable.

"Braving The Tides" ©2008 Michelle Winter. In this interpretation, the boys are golden, almost glowing in the twilight, while the tides swirl around them. The waters are at once beautiful and unpredictable.

Several years ago, I took a picture of my little boys at the beach not long after Gabe recovered from a stroke. That picture captured a moment of gratitude for me. Gratitude for the lives of those boys and for the plan God has for them. In that moment I realized that He was not just my Father, but also the Father of each one of my children. That photograph took on new meaning for me on that first day of Junior High, and I wanted to revisit the image more symbolically. The quilt, "Braving the Tides," was the result. My sons were pre-teens with all the pressures that implies. And yet, they continued to face Life together—one brother leaning on the other with a trusting love, the other holding him up with a patient and enduring love. They were brought together and are held together by the Holy Spirit—their love for one another an example to me.

My father was a diplomat by vocation. His perseverance was another great example to me. Below is the first poem I wrote that he didn't see. It is about the unique value of each person and it is about doing the task God has given you, two things my father lived.

No More

The bridge builder put down his tools,
"No one thanks the bridge builders,
I will build bridges no more."
At first few took notice
They did not care to know peoples on islands they had never visited.
But then the old bridges crumbled
And brothers were stranded apart.

The peacemaker closed his door
"No one is interested in peace,
I will fight for peace no more."
And things continued as before
But the injustices, wounds and offenses piled high
And the walls became a fortress
And the only word was War.

The poet put down his pen
"No one reads poetry
I will write poems no more."
The noisy world did not miss the voice that stopped speaking
But no one called attention to the wonders, no one knew when to stop and marvel.
No one tried to catch the wind while the world struggled to breathe
And then it's heart stopped.

by Michelle Winter

And so, let us run.

 

In Our Weakness, The Spirit Himself

I have a song replaying in me from my father's funeral last week. It's not the song I thought would accompany me during these grieving days. The funeral was so lovingly planned, and each song chosen for the way it spoke of him. Each song except this one. This was the only song that the church insisted was non-negotiable because the singer did not have time to learn to lead a new psalm. This song was imposed on us and I chafed under the edict. But I bit my tongue, and this is the song God is using now:

Shepherd me O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into Life.

And I have learned that this is often the way my soul groans. There are times when a melody will get stuck in my head, but I have learned to recognize the difference between a stuck melody and an embedded one. This is an embedded prayer, a plea from my soul because I don't know how to pray right now. Once I realized that was what was happening here, that my soul was groaning for me, that the Holy Spirit was praying for me, I turned my attention to the prayer.

We were shepherds for many years. I know a bit about shepherding a flock. Sheep tend to be fearful. We always moved gently among them, speaking softly. We enjoyed them, smiled over them. When we needed to make a change, move them to a better pasture, immunize, shear or clip hooves, do a health check, or transport them, we always planned ahead to minimize their stress. We knew that any change from their normal routine would be scary, and we did what we could to lessen the fear. Asking God to shepherd me feels like an act of submission. It feels like falling into Him, trusting Him. It is different from asking Him to rescue me. That feels more passive on my part. Asking for shepherding feels active and yet acknowledges my weakness and His Compassion, Strength and Mercy--all things I need right now. 

And so I sat yesterday, joining myself to the groaning of my soul, and I noticed the rest of the words. My soul's prayer is that My Shepherd would move me beyond my wants and fears. I want my father back. I want more time. I want a do-over. I fear that I let him down. That I will let him down. These are all included in the feelings of grief I am experiencing right now. Asking God to move me through these things and beyond them from death into Life--yes. I didn't know to pray for these things, but this is the right prayer today. And I feel Him shepherding me through, not pulling or yanking, but allowing me to plod slowly through this field.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.

The Word Speaks in Pictures

I was in distress. For almost two years I struggled with a pervasive, all-consuming fear. It kept me from approaching God. I still attended church, continued to go through the motions, but I couldn't talk to God. I couldn't find relief from the weight of my fear. But then...

During church one Sunday, our pastor led us in a lectio divina. Lectio Divina is a reverent reading of God's Word. It is about listening to the Living Word speak. My strongest experiences with lectio divina tend to be when someone else leads it. I find I am often distracted if I have to lead myself into this experience. I know it can be done and I have had good experiences with it, but by far my strongest interactions with imagination and God's Word happen when I can be completely available to the Holy Spirit without thinking at all of the "next thing." On this occasion I remember the moment, but not the text. I remember that I was sitting in fear-induced darkness and that God's Word exploded in me. The pastor's voice began to read and a picture formed in my imagination. I saw God as a Father, arms outstretched, welcoming me home. I saw myself run to Him and I felt His delight at my coming. I felt safe. I felt Home.

But in the silence after the first reading, the fear in me rose up again and I questioned this picture. "How can I come home, Father? There is so much between us and I am scared." The pastor's voice took up the reading again. Another picture formed in my imagination. I saw a little boy standing at the edge of a pool, aching with anticipation. He was so excited he couldn't stand still, yet so fearful he couldn't jump. His father, in the pool, stood with arms ready to catch his son. The little boy kept reminding his father, "Don't let go, Daddy." But it was clear from the smile on the Father's face, and I knew in my own mother-heart, that the child was truly in no mortal danger. The parent didn't need to be reminded. There was absolutely no possibility of real harm coming to that child.

Those mental pictures helped in the days ahead as I continued to struggle with fear. When I was able to pause and hold those pictures in my head as wordless prayer, the grip of fear loosened. The problem I had was that those pictures were fleeting and my fear was persistent. I needed some way to process the images God had given me. I needed to digest the truths, to take them into my bones.

My need to understand grew bigger than my pride. I asked my family to pose as figures in my mental pictures. I took photographs from every angle. We had no pool, but I had my nephew and husband pose on the back porch as if they were near a pool. Then, I asked my nephew to run over and over again in my husband's arms. They had lots of fun with this and the delight that everyone felt in this exercise was affirming to me. These mental images expressed a Truth.

 See what I mean about delight? Those guys loved the running, love-crashing, nose smashing, bone crushing, hug marathon. (copyright 2014 Michelle Winter)

See what I mean about delight? Those guys loved the running, love-crashing, nose smashing, bone crushing, hug marathon. (copyright 2014 Michelle Winter)

I began to use my sleepless nights to prayerfully pour over the photographs. One particularly anxious night, I sat in the dining room whispering, "Where is the story here?" Suddenly, I saw it. In one photograph early in the photo session, my nephew was feeling nervous. He gripped my husband's thumbs tightly, a silent "Don't let go." 

 Nervous thumb-gripping and tentative little smile. I can relate! (copyright 2014 Michelle Winter)

Nervous thumb-gripping and tentative little smile. I can relate! (copyright 2014 Michelle Winter)

I made a pattern from the photo, gathered fabrics and thread and began to quilt. My studio became a sacred space, a place for me to sit with the questions. The cutting was meditative, and God met me there. The piecing was an opportunity for solitude and partnership with the Holy Spirit. Each breakthrough became a celebration of co-creators. By the time the piece was stitched, embroidered and bound, I knew. I knew that God was holding me and that we could face the fear together. I was even beginning to believe we could conquer it together.

And there was something else. Something I knew in my bones. God was waiting for me in the solitude, and meeting Him there was the only necessary thing.

Copyrighted-saved-for-web-Thr-Return.jpg

If you are interested in exploring lectio divina, Christine Valters Paintner has written an interesting book on the topic. I own it and revisit it often:

The Lectio Divina - The Sacred Art: Transforming Words & Images into Heart-Centered Prayer (The Art of Spiritual Living)