Notebook: Pilgrimage

The Sense of Taste by Philippe Mercier

The Sense of Taste, oil on canvas, 1744-1747, by Philippe Mercier, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note:

Today’s post is a letter from the notebook I’m keeping for my work in progress, Rest, which is a book of my poems, essays, and stories about finding rest and renewal in the midst of hard times. Emma and the client mentioned are characters in one of the stories. — MAB

March 11, 2014

Dear Emma,

I’ve found a bewitching group of 18th-century paintings for our chapter on taking in the good through the five senses. The artist, Philippe Mercier, was born in Berlin of French Huguenot ancestry but worked mainly in England.

I’ll tell you, the luminous surfaces and fabrics and fruits in The Sense of Taste appeal to me not just because I grew up with my mother’s European porcelain and silver on our table, but also because I spent nine years at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, fingering the silk chenille of a shawl at the Sunapee Fair or running my hand across a tiger-maple tabletop in the Wood Jury as the woodworkers scrutinized the joinery.

At the League, I learned how to stand next to an object, taking in the nuances of light, shadow, color, contour, line, and texture that develop within us, slowly, in the presence of art.

This book, Emma, is in many ways a journey of healing. Often, when I set out in my car for a new client’s house, I imagine myself going on a pilgrimage like the travelers in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. No matter what I find on today’s road, no matter how tired or sweaty or flustered or touched with grief or loss, at the end of the day I can wrap my weary shoulders in my shawl, or rest my eyes on some gem of the Italian Renaissance at my favorite museum online.

And on the pilgrimage, each day is a new destination. Perhaps, as sometimes happens, the circumstances are very dire, a client very alone in the middle of his last days.

I remember visiting, late one night, a man who had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He had been living with his sister and her husband, but quarreled with them — he didn’t tell me why — and moved to a rented room in a rambling old house with odd flights of stairs and uncertain plumbing.

How he had escaped the grip of hospital discharge planners I never knew, but he’d come home to die and was determined to do it on his own. I spent a week with him while the authorities worked with his estranged family to get him some more help. Shouldering tubs of water back and forth between the bedroom and the bathroom. Carting laundry up and down to the basement washer and dryer. All of this in the heightened atmosphere of grave illness. It’s something like wartime, the epic battle between humans and disease, only instead of the cries of battle and the smell of blood, it’s the grunt of a patient hauling himself up on his side, and the faint breath of lavender incense against a background of cancer-related decomposition. He died on the weekend while I took my day off.

As I write this, a broad belt of sunlight streams over my right side, casting the moving shadow of my hand on the notebook page. I’m wearing my usual work uniform: heather-gray Perfect Fit cotton knit pants from LL Bean, a long-sleeved burgundy jersey from Talbot’s, my favorite mid-blue, rib-knit Bean sweater, and “Darn Tough” brand wool socks in a checkerboard pattern of rose, pink, green, and cream. It’s 55 degrees outside in this mid-March afternoon, and here in New England we’re all grasping for the promise of Spring like pilgrims on the exhausted edge of their last week before home.

Every day can be a pilgrimage, dear Emma. Every day.


Mary Ann

PS: For a beautiful essay on “Pilgrimage as Metaphor,” see this post by Jan Glennie Smith.

4 thoughts on “Notebook: Pilgrimage

  1. I’m so glad you sent this lovely piece to us, Mary Ann. You are a testament to the age-old truth that the dying truly make us live more fully. Thank you! Love from your sister Margery


    1. Thank you, dear Margery. This weekend my son Edward went with his stepmother Becky and his half-brother Jeremy to sing and play guitar for Jeremy’s godfather, Ken, who is dying of ALS. Ken loves music and used to play a mean washtub base with Becky and friends. Hearing about it afterwards, I thought about how the dying give us gifts: the gift of connection, and the gift of letting go.


  2. Oh, this is SO beautiful, Mary Ann!!!! A lot of people turn away from life. You turn toward it and walk directly through it, with art as your signposts. Your point of view is so inspiring! I cannot wait to read your book – perhaps you could call it ‘A Guide to Being Fully Human’ or ‘Inspired Living and Dying’ – something like that. Thank you for sharing!


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