385: Letters from a Northern Pilgrimage, Part 3: “Two Holidays and a Funeral”

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. (Today, though, the photo of a Viking grave is by Jan Sloth-Carlsen.) 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.”


(Part 3, the last part …)

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


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

was in a magical place.
    Inger was gone, vanishing so unexpectedly that her departure was an earthquake. As I moved along this pathway through holiday, mourning, memory, discovery and celebration — I was buoyed through long walks in the Hammer Bakker (the Hammer Hills). It’s one of Denmark’s largest forests and an anomaly in the flat surrounding landscape — a patchwork of towering pine trees and quiet ponds bisected every which way by narrow dirt roads that double as bike paths and hiking trails.
    On my many walks there alone or with Per, I’ve come across markers with drawings of prehistoric dwellings, a Christmas tree farm, a mini sawmill, grazing horses and sheep, a children’s summer camp, a house with a thatched roof and an organic bakery that beckons as irresistibly as the witch’s cottage in “Hansel and Gretel.”

    Last summer, I discovered a field of wild raspberries in Hammer Bakker — on public land! We picked a couple of quarts every day for three weeks, gorging on berries for breakfast and dessert and giving them away to friends. They were best raspberries we’d ever eaten.

    New Year’s Eve was our best ever, hands down. Susan and Hans Peter came over, and Herluf sprang for a three-course catered dinner from one of Denmark’s top butchers. (Really. One of the princes – I forget which one – is a patron.)
    I know I go on about food, but this is a story about the divine, right?
    Denmark is known for its pork, not its beef, but the beef tenderloin we ate that night was extraordinary, similar to Japanese Kobe, with the same melt-in-your-mouth texture and marinated in cognac sauce.
     Hans Peter, the wine expert in our clan, had selected several bottles of a spicy Spanish rioja, which was excellent.
     And I made a festive salad, which Hans Peter — who like most Danes, isn’t much of a salad eater — pronounced the best salad he’d ever eaten: mixed greens, pears, purple onion, candied Georgia pecans, dried Michigan cherries, shaved Parmesan, and California pomegranate seeds in a pomegranate vinaigrette made from Lebanese pomegranate syrup. (I just happened to have the syrup in my suitcase.)
      I thrive on cultural diversity, and being verbally hamstrung in Denmark, turn to cooking for self-expression even more greedily than I do in the states.
     Once again, I had set the table with Inger’s silver, china and crystal, which was getting more use than it had in 20 years. And I had amused myself — and saved money — by improvising a centerpiece from what I could find in the garden or crib from the Hammer Bakker: bright red branches from a bush I can’t identify, shiny green holly leaves and red berries, and some pretty elongated pine cones. I relied on Mother Nature for decorations — for the first time, really — and she had cooperated, most graciously.
    “Matter can help us upward,” says Savary. “It can energize and inspire us.”
      At midnight, the sky started exploding.

     Per and I had been told repeatedly to expect major fireworks. But there was no public show scheduled, and how impressive could private displays be?
     The show lasted for 50 minutes, lighting up the entire skyline of Aalborg — Denmark’s fourth-largest city — from end to end. The city looked like Baghdad on the first day of the Iraq war.
      In Vestbjerg, which is built on a hill, an extension of the Hammer Bakker that overlooks Aalborg, fireworks exploded on every block of every street above, below and to either side of us for as far as we could see.
      It was wild — a street party of revelers wielding champagne bottles and matches, setting off a symphony of pyrotechnics.
     I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, though I later learned the displays are controversial because they release massive amounts of toxins. (I had no idea.) Some people refuse to leave their houses. By 1 p.m., Vestbjerg smelled as if it had been napalmed, and the next morning, I saw my first littered streets in Denmark.

    Our stay was winding down, and each day, Herluf seemed a little less sad. One day, he put on his navy blue parka and herringbone driving cap and, cavalierly tossing a long red muffler around his neck, announced he was going for a walk, something he had not been able to do for more than three years while he was taking care of Inger.
    He couldn’t leave her alone, and became a prisoner in his own house.
    He seemed to be reaching out, taking his first tentative steps into a new life. So I asked him if we could have Iver and Tove over for dinner, and he said yes, even though he barely knew Iver and had only met Tove for the first time at the funeral. He actually seemed excited, and was soon checking on his cognac supply.
     “Herluf’s party,” as I like to think of it, was a shot into the back of the soccer net, in Danish sports parlance, a hit out of the ballpark, in American.
     Our guests stayed for almost six hours, until 12:30 a.m., not that anyone was counting — Iver didn’t have to say Sunday mass, and Herluf, Per and I sure weren’t planning on going to church.

     Iver and Tove were missionaries for years in Bangladesh, and are two of the finest people I’ve ever known. Iver is soft-spoken, and as you might expect, a tad formal and reserved. Dressed in his clerical robe and ruff – the ornamental collar that once served as a dandruff-catcher – he could pass for a 16th Century bishop from central casting.
      That night, he wore his civvies, and his reserve drained away with the second glass of wine.
      Tove is Iver’s opposite — outgoing and laid back, a woman who speaks her mind and can give as good as she gets, which is to say, she was more than able to handle Herluf, who can be a bit of a handful, in a good way, usually. His quick wit and tendency to  dominate is sometimes misinterpreted by those who don’t know him, but not by Tove. She saw through him, the Maurice Chevalier inside the Viking.
     Herluf had made two new friends that evening, one an excellent cook. I’m sure Tove will invite him over for dinner — and then who knows? She and Iver know a lot of people, and their house is just up the hill.

     Did we have too much fun too soon after Inger’s funeral? I don’t think so. Losing a loved one with acute dementia is different than losing someone who is lucid or with only short-term memory loss. We lost Inger a long time ago.
      But she was there with us, in spirit, sipping coffee and cognac as her pretty sage green-and-gold grandfather clock — an anniversary gift from Herluf — ticked away, cackling like a teenager at his dry one-liners and Tove’s sure-shot comebacks.
     At one point, Iver and I talked about God, a topic I rarely raise with other people, and certainly never at dinner parties. But Iver is a priest, and easy to talk to, and I really wanted to know if he believed in a personal God — not all clergy do these days. He said he did, and had since he was boy. I said I did, and had since I was child, too, despite all my years of straying and lingering doubts and questions.
     Then Herluf and I changed places, and I talked to Tove while he struck up a conversation with Iver about God! It was an amazing evening, the kind you can’t plan and wish you could set to replay.
     I like to think the Divine Milieu brought us together, tweaked things to make Herluf’s party happen. If I hadn’t quit my job as a journalist in the United States, for example, I wouldn’t have been able to stay in Denmark for more than a few days for Inger’s funeral. We couldn’t have the party or help Herluf.
     It was a fluke that Per and I even met – in Michigan, my own backyard, after years of traveling mostly alone and secretly hoping to meet and marry a foreigner. And then it was fluke we married in Denmark. If we’d married in the states we very probably would not have met Iver, and later, Tove.
      We met Tove two summers ago when we were out looking for gray herons at a pond about a mile from the house. The pond is on a little-known and dead-end county road, and she and Iver happened to pass by on their bicycles. Iver saw us and stopped and introduced his wife, and the four of stood there talking for a good half-hour.
    When Iver and Tove found out we didn’t have bikes, Tove insisted on lending us theirs. They would be taking them to Norway the following week, but we could have them until then. She never missed a beat. No bikes? Take ours. Biking was a highlight of our trip that summer.

     We met Lars and Lotte five summers ago on a train from Copenhagen — it was the only time we haven’t flown to Aalborg.
    They were with four children — three of their own and an American exchange student — and by the time we got to Aalborg, we had exchanged phone numbers.

    They were so interesting and so nice: good talkers, good listeners, interested in the world and international politics.
    Lars, an archeologist, is the director of the Aalborg Historical Museum, and oversees several historic sites in northern Jutland. We kept in touch by email, and the next summer I wrote a story about one: Lindholm Hoeje (HOY-uh), a 1,600-year-old Viking burial ground, one of the largest in all of Scandinavia.
     He’s a pleasure to be around: intellectually intense, but never arrogant, an Indiana Jones who could just as easily be off in Iceland or Syria as in Denmark. An archeologist wannabe, I hang on his every word about his work.
     Lotte is a psychologist, gentle and perceptive, with long red hair and a delicate, ethereal beauty. She looks like an escapee from Vermeer painting, and is as family oriented and domestically talented as she is professionally successful and dedicated.
    It has twice been our good fortune to be invited to Lotte and Lar’s house for dinner. We wanted to reciprocate, so after Christmas we set a date to take them out to dinner in Aalborg, on our last Saturday in Denmark.
     The evening was a lot like that train ride and our first two dinners together — long and memorable.
     We rendezvoused at 2 p.m. at the Lindholm Hoeje Museum, and Lars guided us through a new exhibit that had opened in August. He had been working on it last summer, and it was exciting to finally see it — and listen to his colorful commentary. (The queen came to the opening!)
     The interactive exhibit took up the whole basement, telling the story of human activity in the area from the Iron Age to the Viking era.
     Lars had built it on a shoestring, which was hard to believe: It included life-size panoramas, a simulation of a dig, dozens of arrowheads and other artifacts that were similar to those I’d seen in Native American displays in Michigan, and my favorite: a pretend bog.
     (I’d seen “bog-man,” a preserved prehistoric corpse at the National Museum in Copenhagen, on one of my first trips to Denmark. It looked like a mummy, and I’ve been fascinated by bogs and bog people every since.)

    After the museum closed at 4 p.m., Lotte and Lars had us follow them back to their house — our dinner reservation in Aalborg wasn’t until 7 p.m. — for tea and homemade Christmas cookies and chocolates. Who says you can’t eat dessert first?
    Best of all, we got to spend an hour with Anders, their middle child, who’s in high school, before he left a friend’s house — on his bike, in winter!
     Anders is as much fun to talk to as his parents — and an Obama fan! He’s visited the states, and we’d love to have him visit us some day. We would have been disappointed if we hadn’t seen him, and were sorry to miss seeing Johan, who’s in grade school and was his grandmother’s, and Camilla, who was in Cuba with some friends and now has her own apartment.
     Before leaving, Lars handed me a little blue box that I recognized from the Lindholm Hoeje’s gift shop. It was an early Christian cross, a reproduction of a silver artifact that was found 15 miles west of Aalborg, at one of several small trading sites next to the fjord. Several hundred small huts and a very early Christian church once existed there.
    The cross was quite unusual – square, with linear indentations and scalloped edges. Lars said the original dates to around 1,000 A.D., just a few years after Christianity was adopted in Denmark.
     The reproduction was very beautiful – I like simplicity in jewelry — though Lars and Lotte said they’d be glad to give me something else if I didn’t wear religious jewelry.
     I don’t — unless you count an enamel pin I own, a reproduction of a bird from the Book of Kells. I hadn’t worn a cross since grade school, but I wanted to wear this one. It spoke to me right away.
     It’s unobtrusively small, with four arms of equal length, like a Danish windmill, that I find rich in symbolism — the four directions, the four seasons, the four elements, the four gospels. It also makes me feel connected to Denmark’s earliest Christians, who were Catholics, of course, like me — and to all of Danish history, really. I’m a little piece of that history now, too.

     I’m wearing the cross as I write, back at home in Ann Arbor, on a day so wickedly cold and with so much snow that winter seems as if it will never end.
     Denmark may as well be on Mars.
     The cross dangles from the end of a silk cord, next to a chunk of Danish amber laced with bits of fossilized plant matter that’s millions of years old and belonged to one of my closest friends, Jeanne, who died three years ago. She was 18 years my senior, the older sister I never had and also a mentor, though not in the usual sense. She was a better writer than I as well as a brilliant editor – and my secret weapon, reading and tweaking all my most important projects before I handed I them in to my “real” editor. Yet she always treated me like an equal. We were girlfriends. 
     Jeanne was also a talented seamstress and did cross-stitch samplers and art work. She made my trousseau — a simple white cotton nightgown and matching robe trimmed in lace — and worked for months on our wedding sampler, which is framed in gold leaf and hangs next to our bed.
     For the sampler, she instinctively chose the exact colors of my wedding dress and bouquet — raspberry, white and green — having no idea what they were. She was thrilled when I told her, and thrilled again when I told her the name of the church where we were married: One her favorite cousins, who lives in California, got married at Sulsed Kirke in the 1960s!
    I miss her, and find such coincidences solacing.


    The Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) and the Roman Catholic Church considered Teilhard de Chardin’s writings too radical to publish and suppressed them. They weren’t published until after his death, in the late 1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s. Since then Teilhardian spirituality has been resurrected and others, and dozens of books have been written, by Savary and others. I’d highly recommend pairing a book on Chardin’s belief in the ongoing evolution of consciousness with a book on Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of biological evolution, in this 200th anniversary year of Darwin’s birth.
     For more on Chardin, visit the American Teilhard Association at www.teilharddechardin.org for a list of books and upcoming seminars.
      Chardin’s own work can be dense and difficult to read. In addition to Savary’s book, which simplifies Chardin and quotes him liberally, a good place to start is “Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Writings Selected With an Introduction by Ursula King.

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