Stories abound in recent times of success gone awry. From congressmen to corporate heads, civil servants to CEOs, our world seems full of superstars who rise to the top, only to fall when they cannot help themselves to a little bit more. Consider, for example, the fortieth governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich.
When people ask about my daughter’s birth, I usually describe the weather. I tell them a story, a true one, about the blizzard that raged the day she came—about my prayers that the baby would stay put during the storm and the telling pains that nevertheless arrived, with no warning, to wreak havoc on my body, just as the blowing snow made mischief for the cars that slid by my window. I tell them about my husband’s frantic shoveling to free the car from the mountains of snow in the driveway and our harrowing ride to the hospital, during which we made cautious haste—cautious so that the car would be able to stop, haste so that we would make it in time. I tell them, finally, about the baby that was born eleven minutes after we traversed the long hospital corridor to the inner sanctum at its end.
A few months ago, I met a real live pilgrim. He has walked over 2,700 miles in the past two years and helps other pilgrims walk too. He has a particular fondness for the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James. The Camino is a network of routes stretching across Europe and leading to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, said to house the remains of Saint James the Greater. Pilgrims have walked the Camino since the medieval era, and the route is experiencing a revival now.
In my memory, I am in seventh grade, sitting in my science class next to a boy I like. The boy sits to my right. This is good, because my right side is definitely my best. At one point during the hour I go to the front of the room to collect an assignment. As I walk back to my desk, I am facing the boy from the other direction. That’s not so good, because it means that he’s seen the left side of my face. Now he’s looking into my eyes. He’s asking me a question, but he doesn’t use words. Instead, he takes his index finger and traces a pattern down the side of his own face.
A few years ago, in New York for a conference, I made a pilgrimage to The Cloisters museum and gardens. I use the term “pilgrimage” advisedly. Like a medieval traveler going to a shrine, I went to see a sacred object—the painting known as the Merode Altarpiece by Flemish artist Robert Campin. From Midtown, the Cloisters was enough out of the way to make the journey a little difficult, the gratification a bit delayed. The museum’s medieval setting enhanced my sense of sacred purpose.