“My wife died five years ago from cancer. We were married for 46 years. I know it sounds stupid, but I haven’t seen any beauty in the world since then.” ~Knut, Danish pilgrim, 73
I met him in the sunlit atrium of the parochial pilgrim hostel in Hospital de Orbigo along the Camino de Santiago. I remembered the moment I entered this place that the last time I’d been here, several years ago, I’d been up all night with bed bugs or fleas or maybe both. Everywhere else was closed since I was walking in November and the next town was a few hours away. A kind grandmother in the street had seen me looking up and down the street, trying to decide which way to go, and she convinced me to stop early for today and rest in that town. So I did.
He was the only other pilgrim around at that early hour, and was sitting in a patch of sunshine at a sticky table, writing in a small, spiral bound journal with a meticulous hand. I couldn’t take my eyes off his enormous and wing-like eyebrows as we had our first conversation. He needed nail clippers and was completely certain that an American would have a pair to lend. And indeed, I did. As I walked out the door to find lunch, I made him promise he’d return them. He pretended he wasn’t going to.
After lunch, I stopped by a small store and bought several mealy Golden Delicious apples, a handful of raisins and several walnuts. I walked into the courtyard and found Knut, informing him that I needed help with a project. he cracked walnuts (strictly a DIY situation around here, it seems) for me while I peeled apples and made homemade applesauce. He went out and got a bottle of wine, which we shared. And then another bottle an hour later, which we shared with other pilgrims who found their way into the kitchen, the only warm place in the albergue. A second batch of applesauce was made, from apples acquired by Andrea, a Spanish pilgrim , with a few pieces of plum from Ralph, a German pilgrim, a clementine rind contributed by Vegan Tom from Poland who lives in Chicago, and special fresh raisins from Malaga with the seeds still inside, but succulent and flavorful and worth the hassle. Oh! Topped with yogurt provided by Knut and the nuts he had shelled. And cooked with a a generous splash of wine. My friends…best applesauce EVER.
And I dare say, I believe beauty may have cracked the door of Knut’s heart today. At the very least, I trust he heard it knocking.
When Vegan Tom asked why I was doing the Camino, Knut replied for me “It’s so you could be here in the kitchen with us!” Maybe so.
I can’t do anything today about Paris. Or Beruit. Or any of the other places in the world where there is heartbreakand tragedy. But I CAN be present to those in front of me. To a lonely and grief stricken old man who is tickled to have a young(er) woman pay attention to and include him in a cooking project. I can praise the food I was served at a restaurant and effusively thank the server who recommended that dish and see him feel good about having provided great service. (The same server who I saw later in the street who told me I was delicious enough to put in a bocadillo and eat. ) I can encourage a fellow pilgrim to not feel compelled to do 30 km days, but to stop and drink that third cafe con leche of the morning and chat with a farmer instead of being in such a hurry.
There are so many small ways we can each heal and love our own small corner of the world. This is what I return to every time I feel like the world is spinning out of control and I can do nothing. Small acts of kindness are SO powerful.
To everyone who has changed their profile picture to the French flag, or the Eiffel Tower…a challenge – what’s an act of change that you can do? How can you be of service or love someone you wouldn’t ordinarily? Find a way to affirm someone’s faith in humanity. We all need it bolstered.