383: Letters from a Northern Pilgrimage, Part 2: “Two Holidays and a Funeral”

ere’s a new spiritual adventure series from ReadTheSpirit — similar to popular series we’ve published over the past year, like our pilgrimage to Iona, poet Judith Valente’s “monastery of the heart.” In another section, right now, we’re publishing a series on the Lenten season.)
(and throughout this week), we are proud to share a new series by the
journalist and author Patricia Chargot (with images by her husband,
photographer Per Kjeldsen). Pat is a journalist who also has devoted
years to adapting important stories about our world for younger
readers. She has circled the world for the “Yak” newspaper project that
serves countless school children across the U.S. She also is the author
of “Balto: The Untold Story of Alaska’s Famous Iditarod Sled Dog.”
    (Note on images in this series:
Like any great pilgrimage, this is an adventure. Many of these images
are Per’s work. But, some are borrowed from other sources to form
gateways to other online locations. Here’s a hint: There’s a recipe via
a click on the skillet below. ENJOY!

(Parts of the Series: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.)


(Part 2)


my life, by means of my life, the world has little by little caught
fire in my sight until, aflame all around me, it has become almost
completely luminous from within.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

y the time we arrived in Aalborg and the sleepy suburb Vestbjerg, about 10 miles north of Limfjorden, the long inlet that slices through the top off Jutland— Inger’s body had been removed from the house. All traces of her declline were vanishing.
      Inger’s homecare bed already was gone to spare Herluf the upset of having to sleep next to it in what had been their bedroom. The removal of these haunting images came as a great relief to Per — and to me.
     Instead, Inger’s gentle spirit seemed to permeate the house: the cornflower blue loveseats and bright yellow throw pillows; the vases filled with fresh flowers and the figurines of animals — a bull, an elk, a trio of cows; the blue-and-white candelabra of a lady with candles in her hair. I remembered them all, and they were so Inger.

     She had put her stamp on every room, working hard for years — selling women’s clothes, which is how she met Herluf — and living frugally to surround herself with the things she found beautiful.
     The house is small — a ranch — but has great flow from room to room. Everyone thinks so. I’ve come to know every square inch of it and never cease to marvel that it’s always there, waiting for me, as real as my own house when I’m in Vestbjerg, as unreal as a house in a fairy tale when I’m not.
     I was so happy to be back. 

     “We get to God through matter,” writes Savary in his book about Chardin.
    Chardin believed in a “divinity” at the “very heart of matter” that could be perceived through the senses, our abilities to see, taste, touch, hear and smell. And by matter, he didn’t mean just the natural world that he loved so well — things like plants, animals, water, rocks, metals, minerals and fossils.
     “He means it in the widest possible sense,” says Savary. “Matter, for him ‘is the common, universal, tangible setting…in which we live.’ ’’
      I’m preoccupied with the physical world, too, taking pleasure in handling fruits and vegetables, in touching the leaves and bark on trees, in letting my eyes roam hungrily over art, architecture, silk scarves, even lipsticks — just about anything whose color, shape, pattern or texture I find aesthetically pleasing.

     It’s my drug: I’m acutely nearsighted, and can still recall putting on my first pair of glasses in second grade and seeing the world in all its wondrous detail for the first time, an epiphany from which I’ve happily never recovered. (Trees weren’t big green blobs! They had leaves! The leaves danced and changed shape, like kaleidoscope bits!)
    Despite Inger’s absence — or maybe because of it; there was no light in her eyes last summer, an image that still haunts — the house looked diaphanously beautiful, the way my own house looks, if only for a few seconds, immediately after meditating or stepping into the kitchen from the deck after being out in strong sunlight.
     Have you ever had the fleeting sensation that life is perfect, at least visually, just as it is, junk and all? That everything is in its right place, like the objects in a still life painting? Ecstasy is fleeting, a private and subjective experience. But I felt ecstasy that first day in the house, embracing every object with my eyes like an old friend, in gratitude for all that remained of “my little Danish life.” Inger and Herluf had loved each other in this house for so long!

    The next afternoon, while Herluf dozed in his chair, I quietly opened the living room cupboards where Inger had kept her china, silver and crystal.
     Like many women of her generation, she had almost never used her best things — no doubt to avoid breaking them — and so I had never really seen them. They were dusty and tarnished, patterns that had fallen out of fashion but were timeless: Cream-colored plates with gold rims; gold-glazed salt bowls and pickle dishes; silver coffee spoons so small they could used to feed a baby; beer goblets so weighty and well-balanced that Hamlet, prince of Denmark, could have lobbed one at Laertes — and killed him.
     I am my mother’s daughter: I hauled them all out, and when Herluf woke up, convinced him that we should use them for the luncheon following Inger’s funeral — in her honor. It didn’t take much convincing.
     I found some old shammy cloths and cleaned the silver to a near-blinding luster. Then I washed and dried the glasses and dishes by hand, wantonly blowing through a half-dozen of Inger’s best kitchen towels. It took me all afternoon, but I had fun! (It’s absolutely OK to in such circumstances, I think.)
    I listened to Inger’s Patsy Cline CDs – Patsy was her favorite female singer. I grabbed my binoculars and spied on some backyard magpies, strutting in their snowy white “tuxedo shirts” and iridescent “coattails.” I pushed open the big screen-less window and let the cooling winter air in.
    I sipped beer.  
    Susan dropped by and when she saw what I was up to, rifled through a storage box of Inger’s tablecloths, and like a magician, pulled out a flat red sheet and a large rectangle of lace. She layered them on the dining room table – the lace atop the sheet – and we both stood back to look. The effect was stunning, festive yet restrained, suitable for both a wake and Christmas.
    Later, I set the table. I wanted to do it myself, as mindfully and artfully as possible. Herluf watched, and was touched — I could tell.
     I felt as if I was performing – or perhaps receiving — a sacrament, if that doesn’t sound too sacrilegious. No one could make me think otherwise, and I was filled with peace.

    Chardin would say I had “sur-animated” a simple domestic task, sanctified it by seeing it as spiritually significant. I’m not naturally good at that — believe me — I usually blow through chores like a hurricane. But I keep trying to slow down, to become more “present” in the moment, and I think Chardin has a lot to teach about “the sanctification of human endeavor.”
      “One pastor told me that his most important job every evening is putting the lights out in the church, the hall, and the offices,” writes Savary.
       “Hardly an explicitly spiritual task. But Teilhard would say to him that God awaits him at every light switch.”
     God awaited me in the knives, forks and spoons! I’ve had sillier thoughts, but I like to think that if God exists, He or She or It appreciates playfulness and a light heart.

     We held Inger’s funeral on the Monday before Christmas, at Sulsted Kirke, the small Medieval church where Per and I were married. It’s more of a chapel, really, tucked away in a pine forest that’s become one of my favorite places to go jogging, walking and exploring.
    I love historic churches and had never seen one quite like Sulsted Kirke, which was a Catholic church until it was commandeered by the Lutherans — sometime after the Reformation. On the morning of my wedding in 1998, I was out jogging near Sulsted Kirke and remember thinking: “This church was built before Columbus discovered America!”
    The 12th Century sacristy is made of rough-hewn fieldstones, and the newer brick bell tower and entrance are painted bright white, with orange roof tiles. More than 1,000 similar churches are scattered throughout Denmark.
     But it’s the interior that stole my heart: The vaulted ceiling is covered with delightfully primitive murals — and I do not use the term “primitive” lightly. In crucifixion scenes, Christ’s wounds are depicted as red polka dots!

      But a church is just a church. What really sold me on Sulsted Kirke was the pastor, Iver, who married us and without our having to ask, conducted Inger’s funeral service.
     Two years ago, Per and I met Iver’s wife, Tove, and the four of us quickly became social friends. Tove was waiting for us at the church and attended the service, which we didn’t expect because she works as a social worker with emotionally disturbed clients who depend on her daily visits.
    So much love and beauty everywhere! How fortunate was I to be here, greeting my Danish relatives and friends; breathing in the clean forest air, drinking in the simple beauty of the church and its tiny cemetery, whose hedge-enclosed plots are miniature gardens?
    How had I come to find myself in this singular spot thousands of miles from the country of my birth and my very American life?

      “Love brought me here,” I thought, hearing the inner voice I’ve been trying to cultivate.
      “I’m connected to all these people and to this place in a unique and mysterious way. And today, we’re joined together, in our love for Inger and for each other.”
      Call me crazy: Inner voices can be cultivated. I’ve been cultivating mine as a kind of spiritual experiment for a while now, and it’s working. So many of us spend so much time listening to the negative voice in our head that can undermine self-confidence and can even emotionally cripple. Why not silence that voice and create a new one to soothe and encourage, a kind of inner cheerleader?
    Who is this new voice? I have no idea. Perhaps it’s just me talking to myself, but it feels different than that, less predictable and more surprising. I’ve never liked the term “higher power” and prefer to think of  “her” as a muse, in the classic sense, a guiding source of inspiration, creative, spiritual and otherwise. Whoever she is, the more I listen, the more relaxed, centered and whole I feel.   
     I felt whole at the church, in a subtle but new way — I turned the wheel ever so slightly and moved the island, like Locke in “Lost.”
     The thought occurred — it just popped into my head — that I, too, was part of this herd, language barrier aside — maybe even language barrier included — a full-fledged member of Per’s family, as indispensable and cherished as the others and entrusted, on this solemn day, with co-hosting a luncheon in Inger’s memory.

     The luncheon was an effortless success, unfolding in the nicest possible way, thanks mainly to Susan, my co-lieutenant, who had ordered dozens of open-faced sandwiches – edible works of art that you eat with a knife and fork – from a bakery, and bought enough candies, cookies and pastry to feed the Danish army.
     Ten of us sat around the table for more than two hours, toasting Inger and tearing up and laughing, in about equal measure.
     Unlike Herluf, the master of ceremonies at every gathering — he could host the Oscars — I am no speechmaker. I’m too self-conscious, too much the self-editing writer. But near the end of the luncheon, I delivered a speech that burst forth like a song.

    It was an “Ode to Inger,” just the right length and chock-full of stories that only I could tell.
    I said Inger was the best mother-in-law a gal could have, that she had made me feel welcome from Day One; that she slyly had had me try on her own rings so that Per could buy me an engagement ring that fit from an Aalborg jeweler; that unlike so many mothers-in-law, she wasn’t at all possessive of her son, whom she deeply loved, and never failed to tell me, in private, every single year I visited how happy she was that Per and I had found each other.
     And she made me laugh. Inger had one of the best laughs of all the woman I’ve ever known. It was unbelievably girlish — and so contagious that I once had to stop the car because she couldn’t stop laughing, and then neither could I.
     But she had a serious side, too. We had some of our best conversations in the kitchen, usually after dinner while doing the dishes — she washed, I wiped. The topics varied, but inevitably, she’d get around to talking about Herluf, sounding like a schoolgirl with a crush after more than 50 years of marriage.  Her marriage became a model for my own.
    And she never failed to dispense a pearl or two of wisdom, my favorite being:   
    “Two is better than one.”

   The speech ended with my favorite memory of the four of us together: Driving down the beach at sunset, in Herluf’s car, on our way to Blokhus to get ice cream cones, with the windows rolled down and Inger and I singing Patsy Cline songs at the tops of our lungs in the backseat.
    “Crazy,” like two crazy women.
     Inger’s heart was pure Patsy.

     Herluf, Per and I somehow managed to have ourselves a little Glaedelig Jul (GLAY-the-lee-yule), or merry little Christmas.
    After 17 years of rehearsals, I had Inger’s Christmas Eve dinner down cold, flawlessly executing it in a Danish oven set to Celsius, not Fahrenheit. It was my best effort yet: roast duck with perfectly crisped skin and a sauce properly emulsified with pan drippings and flour; caramelized potatoes that were truly candy-coated; a ris a la mande (rice pudding with whipped cream, slivered almonds and bing cherry sauce) that rocked, and red cabbage and lingonberries, the last two of which, thankfully, come in jars and did not have to be made scratch.
    What a feast! The duck was French and so large that when I first saw it, I thought it was a goose. We even sang Christmas carols, Herluf and Per in Danish, Per and I English.   
    We salvaged Christmas Day, too, heading north to Susan and Hans Peter’s house, in Hune, near the sea, for a traditional smorgasbord – a buffet of special open-faced sandwiches, including smoked eel on a bed of pressed scrambled egg, on buttered Danish rye bread. Delicious! I ate everything except the creamed herring, which I have vowed shall never touch my lips.
      Susan is a true queen of hygge, and had decorated her tree and house with panache (that’s Susan’s tree at left), even making her own Advent wreath.

     Danes aren’t big on Santa decorations, but they love nisser — mischievous Danish elves — which often come pairs, male and female, and they were everywhere: Peeking down at us from shelves, plopped above our heads, on the tops of couches. Susan must have had a dozen pair, all made by her mother.
     Now she has one less. One of Susan’s many endearing qualities is anticipating what people want, and then giving it to them. She gave me a bag as I walked out the door that night: My very own Mr. and Ms. Nisse.
    A posse of mischievous nisser must have followed us home. I was the designated driver — there’s always one in Denmark — which wouldn’t have been problem. But heavy fog had set in, and on our way through the desolate moors, I could barely see the road ahead.
     In one village, amorphous white shapes hovered at the streetlights and moved along the edges of the road like unfriendly Caspers and packs of phantom hounds.
     Per and I had never seen anything like it, and I was glad I wasn’t alone.
     So was Herluf, I think, once we got home to Vestbjerg. Over the next week, Per spent hours listening to him talk about Inger, which he seemed to need to do, telling and often retelling the same stories, all of which, of course, Per had already heard many times before.
    My mission was to cook Herluf’s favorite Danish dishes, a sometimes futile, sometimes successful attempt to reignite his appetite. He had pretty much stopped eating, too, and had lost weight since last summer — too much for a man his height.

    In the afternoons, when Herluf read and napped, Per and I would go bird watching or to Aalborg to have lunch or see two old family friends, Gulli, 88, and Chris, 91. (That’s Gulli at left; Chris to the right of her.) Their health has deteriorated so precipitously that Chris could no longer make it up the two flights of stairs between their apartments to visit Gulli and cook their meals. It was enough to break our hearts.
      As fragile as those two women are, they insisted on giving us Christmas presents.
      Gulli, who is diabetic and could be facing a leg amputation, told us each to take a good look around her living and dining rooms and each pick out something we liked to take home.

     I had always coveted a small gold-leaf Russian icon, a triptych with paintings of Jesus, Mary and the Holy Spirit, depicted as a bird. But I thought it might be too valuable, and I didn’t know Gulli all that well — she doesn’t speak English. So I decided against it.
    Then I found something irresistible: a girl nisse made from a large pine cone, with blond braids, a little red dress, an embroidered apron and – yes – a tiny pair of gold glasses. A nisse who wore glasses, just like me!
      I got the icon, too: Per asked for it, and Gulli was clearly pleased he had chosen it.

     Gulli gave us the key to Chris’ apartment so we could let ourselves in because she had had been having dizzy spells. She has a weak heart and was sitting in a chair in her living room, next to a walker we had never seen before. But she was smiling, and eagerly reached up for hugs and kisses.
     We left Chris’ with a large stack of blue-and-white traditional Danish potholders and kitchen towels, hand-knit years ago by Gulli’s mother. Chris took care of her for years before she died, then she took care of Gulli. Now there’s no one to take care of Chris other than the caretakers and nurses who visit regularly. Thank God for the Danish health care system, which has allowed both of them to stay in their apartments — and Inger in her home.
     Per’s little family has been shrinking alarmingly. His darling Aunt Betty, Inger’s younger sister and Hans Peter’s mother, died two years ago at home after a short illness. Her generosity was unrivaled in the family. On her deathbed, she instructed a granddaughter to get some money out of her purse and go buy more beer and aquavit because she thought her “guests” might be close to exhausting her supplies.
     In her prime, Betty’s luncheon and dinner parties were as close as I’ll ever come to dining at a palace. Her dining room table was beautiful. Her smile outshone even the china.
     Now, it’s painful to pass her Old World apartment in Aalborg.
    Someone else lives there.

COME BACK ON THURSDAY FOR OUR FINAL PART 3 in this Northern Pilgrimage …

TOMORROW: A special Conversation With best-selling inspirational author Rob Bell — with news about new opportunities to hear Rob in person, soon.

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