a memory from the pilgrimage trail

A few summers ago a bunch of our tribe went on “pilgrimage”. Which basically started out like a lot of our traveling trips: We’re all sitting around the table having tea or coffee, someone mentions a place they’ve never been, then someone throws in another place, and pretty soon we have a map sprawled out on the floor and we’re figuring out how to get from point A to point B… and in the middle of this Andrew will be talking about going to Istanbul just to try out the outdoor spa baths, and Derek is figuring out how to get to a remote cafe for the best coffee in the whole world, and Debbie is already packing her blankets.

The summer of our Spain pilgrimage, Derek was telling us about the beauty of Santiago de Compostela, a small Catholic coastal town rumored to house the bones of St. James, a town which he visited in his early 20s. I think he was living in Israel at the time but I can’t say–even as his wife I can’t keep up with all the places he’s lived.

And someone was saying about how this town was the final destination of an actual medieval Catholic pilgrimage trail that thousands of people walk every year. And pretty soon we were researching the pilgrimage route online, and figuring out all the places we would stop along the way. As anyone can tell you that summer was a bit crazy. Some of us ended up in Paris, others in Milan–Derek and I even squeezed in a trip to Krakow somewhere in there. But we all ended up on the Spanish pilgrimage trail, miraculously, at the same time, for about 8 days. It felt like a month, it was so hot. Only Jessica walked the entire pilgrimage trail.

We all had something we took home with us; for some of us it was the friends and the adventure of it all. For me, I keep going back to this one memory. After those 8 exhausting, heat-filled days, a few of us pulled off the road and went to Bilbao, where we knew the fantastical Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum was. And we weren’t disappointed. It is really an amazing museum. And Bilbao is one of those gems of a town… like Krakow… or Antwerp… or, um, Tulsa (where I haven’t been yet but would like to)… something like that. Not obvious, not a place you read about, but a hidden gem.

And specifically, what I remember about the museum was this entire room of Alexander Calder mobiles. I don’t think I would ever want to see them anywhere else, because that experience is perfectly etched in my mind as one of the most magical displays.

It was a big, tall white room, and so quiet–and not a museum quiet but the kind of quiet you hear in a playlot before children arrive. Where the sound of what-will-happen is already in the air. And these mobiles are the most delicately machinated things, each hinge and color so intricate and light. To watch them was like hearing music without sound. I had never “heard” music before by looking at sculpture or painting, but these sculptures were so happy, so musical–in my mind, I could hear fingernails tapping, harpsichords, chimes, laughter. And I wanted to stand there forever, because they had so much joy in them.

And yet they weren’t silly; they were designed by a mathematical genius, anyone can see that. They were mysterious in how they balanced because as you stepped close to them you felt as if they would topple over under the weight of the metals and seeming imbalance of their limbs.

Even as I write this, I feel like I’m standing in that big room. It was a moment alone, just me and these silent things that wanted to chime but only in my mind.

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