I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Nancy Agneberg’s reflection “Contemplative Driving: Noticing, Wondering, Returning.”
Although my father’s death was not unexpected—after all, he was 96 years old, I miss him. A lot
During the eight weeks of Dad’s dying, I drove the same round trip every day. Thirteen miles in the morning and then again later in the day. My destination was my widower father’s home where he had lived easily and contentedly for several years. Even though I wasn’t walking the Camino de Santiago, spending nights in hostels along the way, rubbing my feet with lotions to ease the blisters from too many miles and too tight boots, I was still a pilgrim. A pilgrim driving in her blue Jeep.
Most days I traveled alone, not exchanging trials and triumphs with other pilgrims encountered along the way. Sometimes I listened to public radio, welcoming the familiar voices of people I’ve never met, but most of the time I drove in contemplative silence.
In her book, Water, Wind, Earth and Fire, The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements, Christine Valters Paintner describes contemplative walking as a time for noticing, wondering, and returning. (120). And that’s exactly what I did, only instead of walking, I practiced contemplative driving.
When I first started making the daily pilgrimage to Dad’s apartment, the trees were bare and the ground, brown. Occasionally, I drove through a snow squall, winter blowing its last breath. My route along Minnehaha Creek was still covered with ice, and the runners and dogwalkers were bundled tightly in winter gear. As the weeks passed, however, I noticed fewer dried and prickly Christmas wreaths on front doors, and lifeless pots of Christmas greens on front steps were replaced with jaunty pansies. A soft green haze developed on the trees along the parkway, and I felt the promise of spring as buds formed. Eventually, crabapple and lilac trees burst into full, fluffy bloom. Day by day.
Along with every variety of dog, I spotted wild turkeys strutting their stuff, and one day, much to my surprise and delight, I saw a parrot perched on the back of a bike, seemingly enjoying the fresh air and the change of scenery, as its owner coasted along city blocks. What was that story? And what about the tired-looking older woman I noticed leaning on her walker most every morning at a bus stop? Where was she going?
I passed the bandshell at Minnehaha Park not far from the falls Henry Wadsworth Longfellow made famous with his poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” I wondered if my husband and I would in the coming summer months enjoy a picnic in the park before attending a concert, as we had many times before. Those were the early days of the pandemic, days of shelter in place, and I passed empty church parking lots and school playgrounds. What was everyone doing and how were they managing?
I sent blessings, “Be safe,” to those who lived in the homes I passed, thinking surely we should know each other because I had passed by so often. Sometimes I played a game with myself, noting the houses that most appealed me, imagining what it would be like to live there.
Crossing the bridge over the Mississippi River connecting St Paul and Minneapolis, I often saw an eagle soaring, a reminder to whisper my mantra, “May I know and be the presence.” I repeated it and took a deep cleansing breath at STOP signs and at familiar landmarks – the bakery that made my wedding cake decades earlier, the funeral home where my mother’s body was taken after she died so long ago, the location where there used to be a Dairy Queen and is now a bank.
Most days the trip took 25-30 minutes, depending on the number of green lights. It could have been less if I had driven the highway, but I needed the time to prepare myself before arriving at the newly-designated sacred destination. Each time I wondered before getting out of the car, if that would be the day my beloved father would take his last breath.
And then hours later, when I retraced my route, returning to our house, I wondered if tomorrow I would not sit by his bedside again. Had I told him I loved him and heard him tell me he loved me, too, for the last time? Sometimes after pulling into the garage, I remained in the car, my sanctuary, for a few minutes, crying, even sobbing, before heading into the house.
Those daily drives were a spiritual practice: contemplative driving.
I noticed my feelings and what supported and strengthened and nurtured me.
I wondered in what ways I would continue to experience Dad’s presence.
I returned to calm, amidst my sadness and loss.
And I prayed, mile after mile, “May I know and be the presence.”
Nancy L. Agneberg is living her Sacred Seventies fully and gratefully in her many roles, including mother, grandmother, spouse, friend, writer, spiritual director, hometender, volunteer, voracious reader, walker of labyrinths. Read her perspectives on aging as a spiritual director on her LivingOnLifesLabytinth.com or ClearingtheSpace.blogspot.com