A Pilgrim’s Year, 2004:  Week 17


Woolly Home


Week 1, 2, 3,

Week 4, 5, 6

Week 7, 8, 9

Week 10, 11, 12

Week 13, 14, 15

Week 16, 17, 18

Week 19, 20, 21

Week 22, 23, 24

Week 25, 26, 27

Week 28, 29, 30

Week 31, 32, 33

Week 34, 35   Sermon

Week 36, 37,    Sermon

Week 38, 39




  Siem Reap

Week 44, 45, 46

Week 47, 48, 49


Week 50, 51, 52


Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme:  pilgrimage.  It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along.  It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis


{I believe I mentioned the material worlds intractability at my hand.  The infernal combustion engine is not the only culprit, though it seems to capture the most inconvenience in one machine, so it often precipitates an extra titer of frustration.  Pushing a riding lawnmower locked in the mechanistic equivalent of non-violent resistance raises my blood pressure...that happened this week.  Feeding a thirsty fuel injector with a liquid more precious than bottled water...ouch.

I have more confidence and more success when poking around in the cyber realm.  This week I have, after much clever turning off and turning back on, brought my computer back to life.  I don’t know why or how, but neither, I’m sure, did Lazarus.  Still, like Lazarus, cyber resurrection does not defeat mortality, it delays it.}


Okay.  I started with the two paragraphs above, but I’ve abandoned them.  Way too negative. 

Outside the rain kicks up the earth and carries its scent to me as I open the door.  This cool, rainy weather is perfect for transplanting, my basic task for the next week or so.  Hemerocallis dug and replanted when the soil amending happened last fall with Paul’s help are now on the move again to new homes.  If you want a miracle of loaves and fishes, plant hemerocallis, iris, true lilies, hosta, and bleeding heart.  These five plants, nurtured over the years, can fill any amount of space you have.  The original stella d’oro we planted eleven years ago when we moved to Andover now graces four homes in our development; it’s like seeing your puppies growing up in new homes.

A large raised bed has true lilies poking through the surface, some six or seven inches high now.  I bought all of these at the Midwest Lilly Society sale at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum the day I first met with Tom and Roxann to discuss their wedding.  These lilies come from amateur lily fanciers, often varieties created in their gardens and available only at this sale.  A bonus is that each one has a proven track record in zone 3 or 4.

Negrita and Queen of the Night tulips, both true purples, have given us quite a show for the last week, as have a hyacinth and a couple of parrot tulip varities whose names I can’t  recall.  This is fun.

Gyatsho has stayed on my mind since our meeting.  He’s lonely.  On the ride to Stefan’s he said the toughest adjustment he has had to make since moving here over two years ago is loss of community.  In the Tibetan community at Dharam-Sala, as in his home village, people were in and out of each other’s homes all the time.  Here, he says, he hardly knows anyone.  His wife, much younger, and a waitress at Ichi Ban and Sakura? has less trouble because she meets more people.

He said, “In the city you spend time with many human beings, but not so much time being human.”  Pretty much sums it up for this small town kid. 

Even though I did not like my hometown much, and even though I like the Twin Cities very much, I miss not knowing the people I do business with, seeing friends across the street, running into folks I know at the grocery store.  Yes, the move to Andover aggravated all of this, but it was still somewhat true everywhere I’ve lived in the Twin Cities except Irvine Park in St. Paul.

You guys are my neighborhood, yet I don’t run into you, any of you, in casual circumstances.

There is a sense, Lyle Schaller flagged this, in which the address book has replaced the geographical neighborhood, and, now, the e-mail address book promotes connection, too.  I enjoy the fact that I communicate with people from all over the world, and with some regularity.

The telephone (which I actively dislike) and e-mail do not, however, replace the arm across the shoulder, a hug from a friend, or singing of circling the earth and spreading our long winged feathers as we fly.  These moments, as Gyatsho underlined, happen only when we gather up close.  The high tech-high touch world of Alvin Toffler.

I travel a lot in the summer, my least favorite travel season, so I can spend time with my cousins on both sides of my family.  These are people who knew me when I was small, who knew my parents and their sibling, who share bloodlines, family sagas, and common ground with me and I with them.  In those times I am an important person not because of what I’ve done, or what I’ve become, but because of who I am, a member of the family.

It could be that the pilgrimage was, in its original form, an antidote to the closeness Gyatsho and I miss.  The dark side of being known, of having  friends and relatives close by is a stifled feeling, a certain social claustrophobia, or a sense of shame which never quite lifts, what journalists call “prior restraint.” 

In the immobile world of the middle ages close community was not a choice, it was a given.  Can you imagine the sense of freedom a person raised in a small, feudal village would have upon setting out for Spain or the Holy Land?  Fear, too, of course.  Uncertainty, doubt.  Yes.  But the sense of possibility, of newness, of boundlessness—no matter how frightening—had to brace the pilgrim.

If we assume for a moment that this was a key component of medieval pilgrimage, then a contemporary pilgrimage might well be a spiritual journey that moves not further away from home and loved ones to a distant destination, rather, it might be a journey into the warm, beating heart of family, of friends, of home.  Contemporary pilgrims might find themselves engaged in a journey inward: both the inner journey and the journey into intimacy, vulnerability, community, family.

We have, perhaps, too much of what the feudal pilgrim had too little:  personal freedom, novelty, far horizons, confidence in our individual capacities.


Joseph Belstzer, 20, made the news tonight.  He and a friend had a nine-millimeter Glock; the gun shot Joseph in the face.  His friend, Channel 5 said, is in jail charged with murder.  The shooting happened in Brooklyn Center.  Joseph is from Andover.

He was Kate’s patient.  After he turned 20, he made the transition to family practice...no longer a kid.  The news rocked her.  Pediatricians don’t have many patients that die, “...too many,” Kate said.

In this case I find reincarnation a hopeful doctrine.  Joseph got as far as he could in this life, then he got pushed back on the kharmic wheel.  Maybe he’ll get a better body next time, or, maybe the proverbial cockroach, whichever, it beats eternal judgement at the age of 20.  Who among us could pass muster at 20, 30, 50, 80?  Grace is a great doctrine, too, but it seems chancy, based on God’s whim (unless granted to everyone; then, what’s the point of talking about it?). 

Still.  The death of the young holds mysteries we cannot penetrate.  Or, it doesn’t and then we have to consider horror, tragedy, pointlessness.  Despair.

Back in the early 80’s, when I was working on the West Bank, I married a couple, their names lost now in the mists of time.  Two, three years later I received a call at home one night.  The woman was dead.

She’d gone out on her back porch, a third floor apartment balcony really, and an almost spent bullet hit her, pierced her heart and did not have velocity to penetrate her coveralls after it exited her body.  She died immediately.

Later, police learned two teenagers had a rifle, were playing around, it went off well over a half mile away, perhaps more and its random trajectory led to her heart.

This was a senseless death, a death which could only achieve meaning if some form of gun control received a push because of it.  Otherwise, a meaningless tragedy.  What, in the human context, is more terrible than that?

Not that meaningful deaths are any less tragic, any less difficult to bear, yet they have a force and value which makes sense in the lived reality of our species.  To die at the hands of a drunken friend, or teenagers playing in the alley...

When the young die, no matter how troubled their lives, hope dies.  The chance for redemption, or for joy, or love, or even an ordinary life with all its sorrows and pleasures exists no more.

Each of you who read this has had a blessed life.  You’ve had a chance, a shot, the possibility.  Only you know how to evaluate the chance you’ve had, how much it has meant, but at least you can read this and wonder.

My mother died when she was 46.  I’ve outlived her now by 11 years.  An odd feeling.  In this sense every death comes too soon.  I never got to reconcile the teenage  years with Mom.  With her, I believe it would have happened.  Her death put the end to more than her own hopes.  It made the life of each of us:  Mary, Mark, Dad, and me so very different.

As does each death, I imagine.  Death changes lives—a tautology, yes, but none the less signficant for that.              

So, I can see the ground from which reincarnation sprang: this sense that once is not enough, that none of us could get it in one go round.   The Druids believed in the transmigration of souls; it’s not quite the same as reincarnation, but the results are similar.  It’s possible they got the notion from Pythagoras oddly enough.

My modernist minimalist metaphysic makes me doubt.  This part of me, the rational, scientific, empirical part, shaped and molded with care will not even entertain the notion of an afterlife.  Why?  Because there is no there there is there?  You know, you can’t push past the veil, so there’s nothing behind the veil.

Yes, on the surface an irrational argument, but one the modernist in each of us kneels to obey.

On the other hand we have the testimony of thousands of years of faith, confident (faith with) in the reality of the unseen:  the Elysian fields, the Divine Comedy, the Pure Land, Heaven, the Otherworld, and, of course, Bardo, the Underworld, Hell; and, in the ability of some human attribute to survive death, or, in the case of the Aztecs, to survive life and to continue on, searching through reincarnation, levels of purgation, or everlasting bliss or punishment.  Searching.   Seeking.  Struggling.

In the end, the one thing we can know for sure that is human to seek an existence congruent with the universe.  It is also, apparently, human to believe such a life very, very difficult to realize.  So difficult that many lifetimes, or periods of time so vast as to beggar our imagination, often don’t seem enough.

What do you believe?  What do you feel?  What’s your hunch?

I don’t know we have much more than that available to us.


By now you’ve seen the rough draft of the Flatland piece, so you have a vague idea of my fiction style.  It needs polishing, as these drafts do, too, but it does represent a flight of fancy...and something I enjoyed doing.

Today our drawing class met at the home of Carolyn Goberg, a textile artist whose work is wonderful. She has worked at her art for over thirty years with little commercial success, yet she keeps at it.  Her work is as good as any contemporary art I’ve seen at the Walker; it helps me keep perspective on the vagaries of  the art world, publishing, all that.

We saw her work space, her stash of Japanese kimono cloth gathered now over those same thirty years, and got a sense of how art and life meld together for her. 

One piece, called Compassion, includes a whole pink satin baby blanket made for her by her grandmother, appliquéd cutouts from children’s kimono, and a border, detailed with sequins and mirrors and beads all hand sewn from a dress made by her grandmother for the ninetieth birthday.  This same grandmother died at age 96 Carolyn said, “...with several embroidery and crochet projects unfinished, but underway.” 

The kimono fabric forms the Chinese symbol for Compassion.

In an art for art’s sake world, objects made with domestic skills like sewing and appliqué, using objects of personal value like the quilt and Carolyn’s grandmother’s dress often get less attention, yet the power is there.  And if the power is there, it is art.  Simple, eloquent, emotive.

Another piece I loved had a wire frame in the shape of a dress with paper clinging to the frame.  Carolyn made the paper by cutting up a dress worn by her daughter at age fifteen and pulling the wire frame through the pulp.  Her daughter, at the time, was in drug rehab.  Behind the wire frame a lexan support covered a screen mesh, and behind the screen mesh was more handmade paper related to the agony she felt at the time. 

Seeing her work, and its quality, made me wonder how many artists, of significant quality, work quietly, doggedly over the years.  Her family, Carolyn says, doesn’t want anymore art.  Yet she keeps at it, all the while wondering why.

I cannot say for Carolyn, but I can speak for myself.  After writing for money and writing for fame and achieving neither one, I had to answer the question why.  Kate helped me, pushed me, but, as with all things, I had to find my own way to an answer.

Part of the answer comes from Yeats, a quotation I’ve offered many times:  “Creation is the social act of a solitary person.”  Yes.  Part of the answer comes from the feelings associated with writing.  Joy, peace, contentment, excitement, thrills, satisfaction are among the positive.  Negative emotions play a role in the answer, too.  When I don’t write, I feel cramped, like I’m marking time, unworthy of the people I love (note:  writing does not make me feel worthy, not creating makes me feel unworthy.)

There is a tactile joy for me.  Touch typing is a skill, a manual skill I have, and I enjoy using it as a means of communication and self-expression.  Also, to hold four or five-hundred pages of a completed novel, to touch the paper and feel its heft is to know I have done something substantial.

I enjoy these pages and, again, I am grateful to each of you for being there.  Just being there on the other side of this keyboard.

This is another short week due to interminable fiddling around with the computer.  I wish I had a tech wizard I could call on to manage my computer in times of crisis, but as far as computers go we’re still back in the Model T, Model A days.  If you set off cross country with your cybermachine and blow a tire, or have an engine problem, you’d better have a tire patch or a tool kit in the car.

Even though outfits like Computer Geeks, now corporatized by Best Buy, can help, even they don’t like to deal with software conflict issues, which are what beset most of us.  The electronic hardware is so good that I rarely have trouble with it, and when I do, it’s fixable...like the car. 

I suppose someday we will have a stable, long-lived operating system and software that does not need updating regularly, but until then...pull on your goggles, wrap the silk scarf around your head, spin the crank and honk that brass horn.


I’m excited by the Woolly website.  This may be a good tool for sharing our experience with the wider universe.  Now we’ve got to consider the key words we want to work into it so Google will pop us up first when anything about Men’s Work gets plugged into their search algorithm.  Even with goggles on and inevitable problems, it’s better to have the computer than to not have it.

Got a root canal this week, Tuesday; then off to the ophthalmologist to check my eye piercing I had done this January.  As we age, it’s strange to learn of the many techniques lying in wait for us and our infirmities.   Strange in a good way, and yet...

Dr. Tabibi cheerfully (too cheerfully for 8:15 AM, I thought.) tapped my teeth with a blunt instrument, pressed ice against them, “Here.  This is normal.” Ouch.  Then, “Let me show you what we do when we do a root canal.” 

A good, real good local anesthetic and 45 minutes later I had a reamed out tooth; it seems the pulp (which died) is only important when the tooth matures.  Once it’s old enough to chew it can survive without the pulp, so they pack the canals full of gutta percha (does this sound right to you?), slip on a temporary filling so your very own dentist can restore the crown—Charles II rolls over in his grave after each root canal—and you go on without need of false teeth.  I am happy I don’t need false teeth. 

Dr. Tabibi has my gratitude for his skill; oh, and $950.00, too.  Worth it to continue eating with my own teeth.

Jane West, my ophthalmologist, said, “Oh, the holes in your iris look so good.”  I love it when she talks opthamological, “Your pressures are great; but, you’ll have to come in every six months anyway.”

It’s my nerve.  I don’t have much margin for error, she says.  I have a computer generated image of my nerve now; the image, stored in a hard disk somewhere, yields to easy comparisons once a year.  Tiny measurements to make sure my nerve hasn’t lost any ground.

Somewhere along the line in all this I got to thinking about Gyatsho’s  comments about a healthy body; one with all the parts working and a good brain.  “It’s important to use all this for enlightenment and for the benefit of others.” 

All this medical care—my blood pressure meds, too—have given me a chance at a long life my genetics might have cut short, probably would have cut short.  Not mention the palliative care I got when I had polio. 

Again, I’m grateful for Jane, her skill with the laser and her diagnostic doggedness.  I’m also grateful for Charlie Petersen and his management of my high blood pressure.  And, of course, Kate—the most important medical professional in my life.

It seems to me that rather than violating Gyatsho’s healthy body idea, these medical supports allow me, like being born with a healthy body, to use the gift of this life as a gift, a gift for the benefit of my enlightenment (however we understand that.) and for the benefit of others.

My very first spiritual director, a nun, a Sister of St. Joseph I think, told me to start with prayers of gratitude.  She also suggested keeping a gratitude journal. 

Off and on this suggestion loops itself back through one venue or another, and it has surface so often I’ve begun to believe it.  I know when gratitude is my first response, or even my second or third, that my day grows richer and my life glows a bit more.

So, I’ll say it again:  I appreciate each one of  you  Paul, Tom, Scott, William, Warren, Mark, Jim, Stefan, Frank, and Charlie.  I’m grateful our various pilgrimages have crossed and that sometimes, for periods of time, we travel together. 

              Charlie Buchman Ellis              Top                        < Previous      Next >