15 sites of spiritual communion

Image above: Ekologinis pažintinis takas “Litorina,” Baltic seaside footpath, Karklė, Lithuania, May 24, 2013 (see item number 13)

My mental atlas contains the following places of communal solidarity or centering solitude, assembled over six decades and during trips or periods of residence when seeking spiritual refuge was not the principal aim. Almost all the discoveries were serendipitous. In fact, the list contains only one location affiliated with organized religion, and that edifice burned down in the 16th century. Otherwise, 10 nations are represented, two cemeteries, two museums, two restaurants. Two of these places of accidental pilgrimage are located in wilderness; two do not exist anymore.

The tour meanders, very roughly speaking, from north to south, west to east. There is no organized chronology.

1 Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Coast Salish totems reach toward the sky both inside and outside the museum. Carved images of eagles, bears, salmon, and other animal and human spirits call forth the numinous and speak to a family’s lineage and resources. As a teaching museum, it is possible to slide open any drawer and to reveal a treasure: even today, using the online catalog, I can find a 43cm model kayak I recall from a visit in 2007, depicting an Inuit seal hunter clothed in tan parka, crafted from wood, sinew, bone, and caribou skin. Exploring the museum’s surroundings, situated near the westernmost part of a peninsula jutting into the Strait of Georgia, one can hike down to the frigid glacier-fed water that laps against a narrow beach. The aroma is that of red cedar, from which the totems often were made.

2 Camp LeFeber, Laona, Wisconsin

I lived here in a staff cabin in the summer of 1993, picking raw raspberries for an extremely tart cobbler and leading weeknight, lakeside performances of the Book of Jonah. Purchased in 1930 for the Milwaukee County Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the 360-acre wilderness camp occupies what once was a network of logging roads, serving a rapacious timber industry that employed tens of thousands before the Great Depression. Abutting Hardwood Lake, where I miraculously passed the Boy Scout swimming qualification, the camp’s trails were soft underfoot, the ambience one of shooting stars and silence. When the scouts left at the end of the summer, we turned the picnic tables upright (to discourage accumulating snow come winter) then lay by the lake and parsed windborne messages conveyed through oak, spruce, basswood, sumac, and white pine.

3 Parker’s Restaurant, 706 East Main Street, Durham, North Carolina

Credit: Duke Chanticleer, 1980

They served “meat and three” before I knew what “meat and three” was: fried chicken or meatloaf with your choice of three items from among macaroni and cheese, greens, mashed potatoes, cole slaw, applesauce, and kerneled corn. Then there were the hush puppies. Always the hush puppies. I took communion there often between 1982 and 1985. Now closed for more than 20 years, Parker’s occupied its own low-slung rectangular space, of brick façade, in East Durham, on the opposite side of the city from Duke University. It was presided over by its owner, Mr. Parker, a taciturn man in soiled white apron, and a motley serving staff who brought the sweet iced tea in pitchers and said little except for, “Getcha anything else, fellas?” Maybe some banana pudding? To me it was a sanctified hovel, offering more “knowledge and faith” than that on offer at the posh academy crosstown.

4 Briarwood Community Center, Brookhaven, Georgia, and the Latin American Association, 2750 Buford Highway, Atlanta, Georgia

For a magical period that lasted from early 2010 to mid-2011, I taught English as a second language to adult women from Veracruz, Michoacán, Guanajuato, and Guerrero, México, and slowly became involved in their lives, participating in posadas, Día de los Reyes Magos, el Vía Crucis, birthday parties, graduations, mourning rites, and visits to tiny accountancy offices and panaderías along Buford Highway and beyond. Classes were held in a 200-square-foot function room at the Briarwood recreation center, containing a few long multipurpose tables, folding chairs, portable whiteboard, and metal lockers for holding donated art supplies to keep the women’s small children entertained during the 90-minute lessons. In 2012, after several months in Colombia, I’d move south down Buford Highway to teach at the nonprofit Latin American Association, home to its own sacred rituals and blessed bilingualism.

5 Valle de la Paz Cemetery, Hargill, Texas

The parched cemetery plots are policed by a bounding black Great Dane, who wanders ghostlike among the remains of Cantús, Dávilas, Domínguezes, Garcías, and Treviños, the stone markers demonstrating a studied inattention to diacritical marks. Typographical errors in Spanish appear on the slightly larger reptilian-decorated headstone of Gloria Anzaldúa. She hailed from and wrote about these Texas borderlands, which I visited for the first time in March (see 9 March 2020). Her words have penetrated my being; thus, this oasis, at the corner of two eroding gravel roads, rife with plastic flowers, American flags, and the detritus of Días de los Muertos gone by, cradles and nurtures seeds of understanding and new life. As in Anzaldúa’s poem “En mi corazón se incuba”:

Todo comienza a partir de este día,
Una tristeza me invade y
Algo extraño se oculta en mi vientre—
Un golpe de soledad que me consume.

Or, from “To live in the borderlands means you”:

To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.

6 Cozumel, México

At the end of a 1977 trip that had included archaeological tours of Teotihuacán and Chichen Itzá, my parents and I stayed for three days at the El Presidente hotel, now the InterContinental Presidente Cozumel Resort Spa. Flippers, masks, and snorkels were rented by the Caribbean, predictably glassy and green, and I floated amidst an array of tropical fishes that I came to worship. The worship demanded so much that I participated in these devotionals without taking time to apply sunscreen. My backside was reddened and cooked, ridden with oozing pustules that meant I could not bend my knees when it came time to head home. This cancerous beginning to life forged an alliance with swimmers of the deep and with all hidden creatures, whether denizens of the shoals or underearth, who have never mouthed to me a single rebuke.

7 Jardín Botánico, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia

My love of the garden began instantly, at first viewing from the elevated tracks of the Metro de Medellín. Immediately, in June 2011, the palm fronds and mounded greenscape called out to me. The landing in Colombia had been harsh: the nighttime frigidity of Bogotá, a period of confinement in a bunk-bed hostelry, solitary waits and snatches of sleep on the tiled floors of bus stations, and turbulent overnight, rainy transits over blackened cordilleras. Medellín offered more bunk beds, but promise and warmth. I found a friend, and my mind could turn to learning the scientific names of the family Arecaceae. I claimed an empty bench seat by the Laguna Francisco José de Caldas, closed my eyes, pressed a Book of Common Prayer to my knee, and petitioned to the dragonflies and murmuring things to keep watch over this journey.

8 Tornado section, KwaThema, Springs, Gauteng, South Africa

With journalist Lungile Madywabe in the driver’s seat of his silver Mercedes, we cruised around the KwaThema township, 25 miles east of Johannesburg, looking for a particular family. Without Madywabe and his multilingual acuity, stopping at odd intervals to question would-be informants in isiZulu, I never would have never written the story of Eudy Simelane, the female South African footballer murdered in April 2008 less than 200 yards from her bungalow in KwaThema’s Tornado section. A little over a year later, at the start of the South African winter, Madywabe and I sat in the dining room of her parents’ double-pile house. With Khotso and Mally Simelane in the kitchen, we shivered, Madywabe in a leather jacket, turning to say, under his breath, “It’s fucking freezing in here.” This spare home and Eudy’s parents’ shoulders bore the brunt of tragedy as night fell. Lights came on as witness in the post-apartheid gloom.

9 Streets of Delhi, India

I have a complicated relationship, still, with these half-dozen children who approached in March 1971. What once seemed like a narrative of acceptance—me, a freckled, towheaded 7-year-old surrounded and lifted by this tide of dark skin—has become a tableau from a V. S. Naipaul novel, a silent naïf (that is I) serving as a projection of white settler colonialism. Looking over these 15 sketches of spiritual life, they all bear the taint of privilege. That is what viewers will discern, too, in the Turnbull Family Home Movie Collection, part of the Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Award Collection at the University of Georgia. The truth contained in those reels, which I cannot articulate in full, is one of separation and unseeing. I thank these Delhi children now for their persistence, over 50 years, in working to pluck the scales from my eyes.

10 Settignano to Florence, Tuscany, Italy

In late winter, after midnight, it takes approximately four hours to walk from the heights of Settignano, where Michelangelo’s marble was quarried, to Piazza Puccini, west of the original walls of the Renaissance city-state. Beginning with a descent along the Via Gabriele D’Annunzio, leading to the geometrical tangle of the old city, the course resembled, in atmosphere, the set of Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog. There were periodic encounters with garbagemen, the throaty dreams of pigeons. The unaccompanied stroll occurred 20 years after my original Florence baptism in 1964 and offered me the feel of hard city streets underfoot as well as access to primal states of abandonment, self-betrayal, and incipient infatuation.

11 Arsenal Stadium, Highbury, Islington, London, United Kingdom

Thierry Henry broke into the open, ball at his feet, black gloves on his hands, and rampaged down the left wing of the Arsenal attack. At Highbury that night on January 24, 2006, a Carling Cup tie against Wigan, West Stand spectators’ padded red seats flipped up, with the clatter of falling dominoes, as Henry made his move. No goal came of it, but it was the most exhilarating moment from a match that included a blown Sol Campbell header and a converted Robin van Persie free kick. My affection for the Arsenal accumulated over years of watching Highbury matches early on Saturday mornings and ingesting Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, both the book and film versions. Henry’s burst to freedom constitutes a freeze-frame of athletic brilliance, distills the beauty of football, and draws the curtain on the Highbury stadium, converted to apartments after this 2005-06 campaign.

12 Jedburgh Abbey, Jedburgh, Roxburghshire, Scotland

Credit: Historic Environment Scotland

Turnbulls are entombed beside the 12th-century Augustinian abbey (torched in 1523), among others bearing clan names of the border region. According to an online list of inscriptions, one can find Agnes Turnbull (d. 1840), Margaret Turnbull (d. 1815), George Turnbull (d. 1849), John Turnbull (d. 1878), and many more. These, though, are not of my direct lineage, for James Turnbull, a surveyor, had already left Bedrule, Roxburghshire, sometime in the mid–eighteenth century and would die, in 1767, in Granville County, North Carolina. He was my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather; he and his progeny would become slave-holders, Confederates, and Bible-toting Presbyterians. My first trip to the homeland took place in 1978, during a student-exchange program with Craigmount High School in Edinburgh, when my hosts, the Kilpatricks, along with sons Colin and Bobby, graciously spent precious funds on petrol to drive the 55 miles each way. I returned with my father in 1984 and subsequently corresponded with residents about the annual Jedburgh ba’ game, a rite of residual violence that still percolates in this blood.

13 Ekologinis pažintinis takas ‘Litorina,’ Karklė, Lithuania

Unknown to me beforehand, the Baltic Sea emits an orb, a welcoming glow that gets diffused through mist and, here on a Lithuanian shore, through thick stands of stately European red pines. I approached on bicycle in May 2013, having pedaled north some five miles from Klaipėda. The bike rattled along a boardwalk for the final 100 yards as the orb grew more encompassing and seemed to take me within its salvific embrace. The Baltic “educational” seaside path runs along a cliff’s edge, where one can sit on sandy loam to meditate, in the late spring and summer, until 10 or 11 p.m. Biking this loop from Klaipėda to Palanga to Kretinga and back also means noticing the black obelisks, etched with the Star of David, that mark the origins of the Holocaust in the summer of 1941 (see the Holocaust Atlas of Lithuania for the complete list of sites). More than one commentator has noted how the Einsatzgruppen chose places of great natural beauty for mass murder.

14 Vilniaus Gaono Žydų Istorijos Muziejus, Naugarduko str. 10, Vilnius, Lithuania

I once broached the systematic murder of Jews with members of the Lithuanian military. The most charitable remark was that the Jewish people “were unlucky.” Given this context of forgetfulness, or willful distortion, the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History and Tolerance Center emerges as a bold statement of resistance. It is part of a network of expositions in the Lithuanian capital, including the “Green House” Holocaust exhibition and the Ponary forest memorial, where as many as 100,000 Jews were murdered, often after being force-marched from the Vilna ghetto. While paying homage at these sites in early July 2013, I came across the book Spiritual Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto by Rachilė Kostanian. She records how Jewish spiritual and cultural vitality persevered even in the forced sequestration from 1941-43:

Uprooted from their homes and traditional way of life, the people of the Ghetto created their own traditions, established their own holidays, and celebrated them. It was an attempt to live on the boards of a scaffold. (p. 63)

The Vilnius museum recalls much more, however, especially the 18th-century period of Vilna Gaon Elijah ben Solomon Zalman when this city served, for Judaism, as a “lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105).

15 999 Shan Noodle Shop, 130b 34th Street, Yangon, Myanmar

Numbers bear great significance in Myanmar, as noted by the Irrawaddy magazine. Hence, nationwide cease-fire negotiations in 2015—the year of my three-month residence in Thailand and brief excursion to Yangon—began at 9 a.m. on September 9, among nine government representatives and nine ethnic leaders. Nine, or konawin (၉), is viewed as auspicious, so much so that there is more than one 999 noodle shop in the Burmese capital. This particular noodle shack, 999 Shan Noodle Shop (၉၉၉ ရှမ်းခေါက်ဆွဲ), gave sanctuary from the unceasing foot and motorcycle traffic. I had buckled more than once from the swelter, both downtown and at Shwedagon Pagoda. But strong broth, tropical-fruit drinks, and the faith of the Buddhist multitude will often bring renewal.

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