Five Years

I glanced at the date at the bottom of my screen, but the glance turned into deeper vision as I fell into that place. May 17 will always be the darkest day for my family, the most unnatural of places, where a father watches his son depart; where an entire family is changed, in an instant, numb and wandering, looking for whys.

Perhaps it’s that point, when we actually realize that we’re numb, that we look around and find ourselves embracing, not clinging to stay afloat, but rather holding each other up.  These are intensely personal thoughts and emotions, but shared as evangelism, as we each hold a piece of puzzle and struggle with how it fits into our own journey.

We place one foot in front of another and choose our paths alone.  At times of insight, we realize that we have chosen to walk with others by no accident.  We are, in fact, “here for a reason,” although sometimes it’s a struggle to know why.  Not in the context of, “everything happens for a reason.”  I stopped believing that a lifetime ago.  But rather, in response this sometimes tragic life, how do I respond?  Where do I go, both literally and figuratively?  Which direction do I look for guidance, to make sense out of any of it?  And whom do I find myself walking with, as I look around, when I finally emerge from the anaerobic depths.

I stopped being numb only when I finally realized that although sometimes those who I walk with are holding me up, and are “here for a reason,” this is my journey, and only I can choose to feel again, to breathe again, to live again.

Four years ago today, after hiking, falling, and crawling 540 miles from France, across the north of Spain on my first Camino de Santiago, I held my wife Sharon’s hand and entered the Cathedral of St. James.  The pilgrimage to the tomb of the Apostle is life changing for everyone who completes or even attempts it, in very unique and individual ways.  It was here that I began to look around and notice where I was, and those around me.  Somewhere during the month, I began to look at myself from a different lens and realize how my words and emotions were changing.  I don’t think these were my own eyes, this was someone else’s vision of me.

My story was one of great pain and loss, and I wanted to make everyone else know the pain, and cry with me.  I hated this journey, I hated my life, and I hated everyone I encountered because they didn’t feel my pain.  But, as I walked the Camino de Santiago, I began to feel again, to stop hating, to love again.

Somewhere along the path I had stopped enjoying the tears of others.  Clearly it had been a struggle, but I saw myself and my swollen knees, black and blue and bloody from so many falls, struggling up and down the trails, continue to carry me forward one step at a time.  And I saw myself embracing others, from Belgium, France, Germany, China, Morocco, Canada, Japan, Spain, and so many other places.  They carried their own crosses of pain – their own unique struggles and grief.  Others were there for a reason also, and my walking with them was no coincidence. My story began to change from one of death and loss to one of life and salvation.  And the words and stories and memories I found myself sharing were those of love and happiness and support for others who were also hurting and struggling to find some sense in their own lives.

   

Working through grief is hard work, and it very different for each of us.  There is no recovery, no return to the previous path, no “new normal.”  Loss is not something to get past, to recover from, so we can “get on with life.”

In the movie foreshadowing so much of my life, The Way, when “Jack from Ireland” discovers that Dr. Tom (Martin Sheen) has lost his son and is carrying and spreading his ashes along the way, he exclaims, “That’s brilliant! Tragic of course, but brilliant!”

And so it is.  Life is, in fact brilliant and beautiful.  Of course there is tragedy and great loss.  But it’s tragic because of its beauty, and we only see the brilliance of salvation because of the loss.

I don’t love my life in spite of my losses.  Like my son I have things I struggle with.  But struggles and losses don’t mean his life wasn’t beautiful, and meaningful, and love filled for everyone he encountered.  His having lived for 19 years made the world a much better place.  I have chosen to embrace my loves and losses, because they make me, me.  Cullen was here for a reason, and so am I.

  William Cullen Klein  IMG_3615

Each year since that accident have found me remembering the date in remarkable, meaningful places.  Santiago twice, Morocco, Lourdes, and today, on the fifth year reflecting on his beautiful life, I’m at the Trappist Monastery where Thomas Merton wrote his classic Seven Story Mountain.

Today doesn’t have to be about loss.  Many celebrate wedding anniversaries, birthdays, and other joyful celebrations. Please join me in thanksgiving for a beautiful life.

His, mine, and yours.

Much Love.

Cullen’s favorite pose

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death

From A Headstone In Ireland:  “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.”

Hilary Stanton Zunin:  “The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief – But the pain of grief is only a shadow when compared with the pain of never risking love.”

Unknown:  “When death overtakes us; all that we have is left to others; all that we are we take with us.”

Walter Scott:  “Death— the last sleep? No the final awakening.”

Leonardo da Vinci:  “As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.”

Theodore Roosevelt:  “Death is always, under all circumstances, a tragedy, for if it is not then it means that life has become one.”

Bertolt Brecht:  “Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life.”

Benjamin Franklin:  “A man is not completely born until he is dead.”

 

Mark Twain:  “All say, ‘How hard it is that we have to die’–a strange complaint to come from the mouths of people who have had to live.”

Rabindranath Tagore:  “Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp because dawn has come.”
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Camino Primitivo with Dad, “Striking it Rich in Lugo,” 4th Night, 12 May 2016

My “cheater bus” didn’t have a stop in Cadavo, so I’m actually skipping 2 segments tonight – in about an hour I’d be in Lugo.  This actually put me a day ahead, and I’ll now arrive in Santiago on the 16th. My previous time in Santiago was emotional and, although not rushed, certainly not leisurely. I’d not had a day just to wander aimlessly, and people watch. Or instead, I could go on to Finisterre.  Tempting?  Of course not – this journey has always been about embracing the tomb of St. James on the 17th of May, not some pagan clothes-burning ritual at the end of the world.

I slide off the bus with 18 Euro now, and am beginning to  squirm a bit because if I don’t get my stupid ATM card to work soon, I’m going to run out of money. As my GPS guides me to my albergue, I walk by still another ATM; I spin around to try for probably the 10th time. I’d texted Sharon with Capital One’s phone number and was emphatic that she read them the riot act. Actually she’d undoubtedly been much sweeter than I had been the four times I’d called.  Maybe honey attracts success better than vinegar.

And so on my 11th attempt, out comes 200 Euro!!!

Wooo Hooo!  My wife is amazing!

I truly felt like I won the 500 million powerball.

Here’s a picture.  Me, stinking to high heaven from hiking in the rain and sweating up a stench in the afternoon bake for 7 hours, hauling 28# on my back, walking like my blisters had blisters.

But now I gots a “swagga.” Like I had gold chains on my neck, walking in the club, wit’ abou’ a bilyawn dolla in my pockets.

I know it all sounds a bit ridiculous. But that’s how I felt.

I still stayed in the 8 Euro hostel, but nodded without hesitation when asked if I wanted to eat a communal dinner with everyone. No problem, I can afford it!

And besides, I really like Paella!

 

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Toasting the Chef at Albergue Lugo

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Camino Primitivo with Dad, “Catching up in the Rain,” 4th Day, 12 May 2016

I woke up today in such a good mood.  I slept well, my electronics were all charged up, my clothes all washed, and had memories of a fantastic day yesterday. I was up very early, and out the door while it was still dark…

Uggghhh.  Rain.  Very heavy rain.

Rainstorms in Florida pass in an hour or two.  But not here.  I was near the end of Asturias, and very close to Galicia, where it can actually rain for days.  No biggie.  It’s why I’ve carried around the extra 3# in my backpack.  I went back into the albergue and slipped on my rain-pants, and jacket, both made of eVent fabric, a newer cousin of Gore-Tex – supposedly waterproof, but breathes better so I won’t get soaked in sweat.  And this time I had also brought along gaiters, to keep the rain from dripping from my pants onto my socks and into my boots.  I was ready.

And off I went.

I’m making good time until I realize that I haven’t seen a scallop or arrow “way-marker” in an uncomfortably long time, and it’s raining entirely too heavy to risk getting my phone out to use the GPS.  I’ll trudge along for another mile or so and if I still don’t see any signs, I’ll turn around to retrace my steps.  I hadn’t even gone another 100 meters when the trail simply ended.  This path had clearly not been the Camino.  I’d obviously taken a wrong turn somewhere in the past hour.  So I turned around, and although I’m trying very hard to laugh at myself, it’s pretty difficult.

Goretex and eVent may well be “water resistant,” but they most assuredly are not “water-proof.” I’m now drenched through and through, and pretty miserable.  I backtrack to the last visible marker and I can’t, for the life of me, see how anyone could know which is the correct route.  There are several crossroads, and so many are conflicting that I begin to look for someone to ask.  But there is no one to ask, and so I give it another best guess. This one is lucky, because within about another kilometer, I see regularly spaced markers, indicating I’m on the right path.  Wishing I had someone to “high-five,” I look up and smile, lifting my hands for a different kind of salute.  I’m pretty sure He’s glad I finally found the right path also, and it just felt appropriate to celebrate together.

The weary feeling is exhaustion – so tired and doubting myself, with morale slipping, and frustrated, almost desperate for affirmation.  And then there it is.  Hundreds of years old and pointing “the way.”

Just when I think no one else could really understand the emotions of needing so desperately to get a sign that I am going the right way, one of those light bulbs goes on over my head.  It’s another metaphor for our life journeys; lots of people who have never worn a pair of hiking boots know this feeling. Guess I’m just a slow learner.

So anyway, 7 hours and 27 sloggy km later, I see the first hiker I would encounter today, and as I approached him from behind I was nothing short of astonished.

“Stefan! How the Hell did you get this far?” I reached for his hand and he almost fell onto me. “How are you?”

“Not very well, My feet hurt very badly.”

And how did you get ahead of me?

“Well, as I arrived yesterday in La Mesa, I realized I had only walked 29 km, and it was still pretty early, so I just kept walking, and there was nowhere to stay until I got to Grandas.”

“Yeah, but that 29 km was the hardest segment of any Camino!” I reminded him.

Stefan sheepishly replied that he really regretted it during the last hour.  “So you walked 45 km yesterday, on the hardest day…”

“Actually it was 44, but I don’t know how I got ahead of you, did you sleep late?”

“No, but I did get lost for about 2 hours.”

Stefan began to laugh from the belly, the kind that is contagious to everyone around, “Did you go to the left just after Castro, as the path entered the forest?”

“Umm, yes…that’s exactly where I got lost.”

He kept laughing, because he had made the same wrong turn in the rain.  “I saw the fresh tracks, and I followed to the left for a while, but when there were no waymarkers, after about 10 minutes, I turned around.” (That’s where he had overtaken me, because I stayed on that wrong path for probably an hour).

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Another Camino metaphor: Don’t blindly follow another’s footsteps (especially if they’re mine!), when you, deep down know you’re on the wrong path – your inner compass is a better judge.  When we simply follow where others have gone, we’re effectively walking in their boots, and not our own.  They may not have a very good compass, or they might be ignoring it.

“Anyway, so why did you keep pushing forward? You told me you already had a few extra days to spend in Santiago, so why not  pull back and take your time?”

Stefan stopped walking and looked at me, “You are my friend, and I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”

Wow.

I was surprised. No, actually I was shocked. He would push himself through this much pain to see me? And now I was horrified, and embarrassed. “You’re on track now to get to Santiago on the 18th (his original plan was for the 19th).  I actually leave on the 18th, so I need to be there for the Pilgrim’s Mass on the 17th.  So in Fonsagrada, I must get on the bus again, to…”

“I know that,” Stefan said.  “It’s fine, don’t feel bad.” I’m very happy that we met again.

“Let’s at least have dinner together, did you have lunch?”

“No,” he replied, “there was nowhere to eat!”

Realizing we were now in Galicia, I suggested we have pulpa (octopus), the specialty of this region.  “I’ve never had it before, why not!?”

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I was squirming a little bit when I saw the menu.  Twelve Euro was reasonable for a four course meal featuring pulpa, but cash was low, and the sign behind the bar said, “Cash Only.”  So I excused myself to use the restroom, where I could count my cash, and was relieved to see I had 24 Euro and about 40 cents.  Perfect – of course I wanted to pay for his meal also.

By his facial expression and the food left on his plate, I’m pretty sure he thought it was disgusting, despite the fact that he said he liked it.

Now I really felt bad.

I asked the waitress for the check, and she looked at Stefan, then at me like I was from Mars, then back at him again, and he said, “I paid for our meal while you were using the servicios.” When I started to object, he cut me off.  “Don’t say anything bruder, I’m so happy that I can help you.”

He remembered how cash strapped I am.  My ATM password hasn’t worked since I got here, and so I’m limping along for 4 days on the $100 (74 Euro) emergency money I had brought, and he knows it’s almost exhausted.  Funny his math was better than mine.  If I had paid for dinner, I wouldn’t be able to pay for the bus!

And so the food didn’t seem to matter at all to him.  We’re talking and laughing and telling stories, and remembering… as if I was 30 and a childhood friend of his from Berlin that he hasn’t seen in years.

Except we’ve known each other for almost exactly 24 hours.  Camino time.

And so, once again I got on the bus, and he would walk on to the next town. The way he was painfully hobbling along, I knew he couldn’t go much further.

But it was sure good to see him.

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Camino Primitivo with Dad, “Piggy-Back Ride up to the Hospitales,” 3rd Day, 11 May 2016

The guidebook on my Kindle was very clear: just after Borres there would be a fork in the road. I think I’ll be there about the time the sun is rising.

To the right was the alternate route that I’d heard others talking about, with much greater grades and difficulty, of which the book warned, “must be avoided in inclement weather,” and to the left was the “recommended” path.

Don’t even ask.

Of course I would take the more “scenic” route.  These little journeys I take are something I kind of take personally, as I’ve said before, it’s time with my Creator and my son.  And so, when I’m most challenged, I imagine him on my back, and I’m giving him a piggy-back ride, seeing the most magnificent things that anyone could imagine, and can only be seen by hiking this trail.  Perhaps that’s why they’re magnificent.  And soon we encounter wild horses, and as I get closer I realize one is giving birth.  New life, another pretty powerful metaphor.

About two hours after the fork, my thighs are beginning to feel the burn as the path becomes loose rocks, and the grade is becoming misleading.  The trail meanders right, then left, over and over again, with relatively flat areas where it reverses.  This results in my being fooled repeatedly that I’m “at the top,”  or even near the top.

My pace has slowed considerably, and I’m beginning to count my steps and rest after every hundred paces, because I can no longer make it to the next flat area to stop to catch my breath and get a sip of water. And soon it’s only about 20 paces between rests.

Seriously? Am I this out of shape? Am I this much older than I had been in 2013? The huffing and puffing, and drenching in sweat in the morning sun, and the loose rocky footing is building on the doubt that we often carry around about ourselves. This is part of the “Camino catharsis.” During my previous 4 week Frances Camino, I heard it said that the first week breaks your body, the second breaks your spirit, the third breaks your soul, and the fourth week becomes the resurrection of all three, as you enter the Santiago and the Cathedral.  An Ignatian Spiritual Exercise, if you will.

In a shorter, two week version like Primitivo, I’m not really sure where the cut-off is between breaking body and spirit, and today the first two are fully employed.  Fortunately I had learned about knee braces, but my heart is about to explode right out of my chest as it struggles to keep up with me, and my back is killing me, especially where my right strap crosses the plate on my previously broken collarbone.  As I shift the strap over and adjust the angle of my pack, I just focus on putting one foot in front of the other.  Like the “AA 12 step program,” I’m just taking one more step at a time, and not just “getting through” this but embracing and owning it.  Life’s not about getting past the trouble and pain so you can get on with living, but rather seeing trials as important parts of life itself.  And as I place one foot in front of the next, I slip into memories.  My throbbing collarbone takes me back to the day Cullen and I were riding our dirt-bikes through the orange groves, often at breakneck speed.  Zipping past each other we were laughing and screaming at each other, and popping wheelies and having the times our lives, and then as he cut me off, I slowed and dropped my front wheel to the ground. Scattered throughout the grove were stumps, and as I glanced over make sure I wasn’t cutting Cullen off, I hit one.  My 250cc Honda 2 stroke came to an immediate halt, hurling me over the handlebars and although my head dodged another one of the stumps, my shoulder and neck took the brunt of the impact.  I soon realize why they say a shattered collarbone approaches the pain of childbirth, and the memory of the pain brings me back out of my trance.

I’m also startled by the chill in the air.  I’m much higher than I was when I started, and the damp from my perspiration is now  really making me cold.  I stop to add another layer from my pack, and I realize I can see my breath, and that some of the clouds are below me!

I’m trudging forward so slowly that I’m really surprised that none of the stronger hikers have caught up to me, and that actually I haven’t seen anyone since I left.  Some of the Europeans, especially the Germans and Austrians think a day like this is just a walk in the park – they don’t even use hiking poles.

Most of the time I hike in silence with only the noise of the wind and birds and the voices in my head, but now I slip in the earbuds so some music can take my mind off this brutal climb and give my feet a cadence from the beat of music.

A few songs later I’m again struck by how cold I now am, and I wish I still had Cullen’s sock-cap to pull over my chilly ears.  Before I can drift into that memory, I encounter on my left the ruins of a shelter, called “los Hospitales,” from medieval times.  Just a pile of rocks now, I imagine the perigrinos from over a thousand years ago, especially in rain or snow, so relieved to discover a rufuge here in which to weather the storm, or simply find food and water.

I loosen my backpack, and unload her to grab the cheese and baguette I’d stashed for my lunch.  It takes forever to get the cheese package open, because my fingers are numb from the chill.IMG_3779

As I fumble to assemble my sandwich, I’m startled to see a shadow quickly cast on me from the only other hiker I will encounter today.  Stefan seems as glad to see me as I am him.  I ask if he speaks English, and he smiles to respond with a German accent.  Of course he does, Germans are the only ones who consistently speak English proficiently – I learn that it is mandatory for all their students, and I’m again embarrassed that I’m the idiot abroad.  Although I can get by in Spanish, all I can think of in German  is (I know I can look up the proper spelling, but this is the awkward way I tend to say stuff) “Gesuntite” (which wasn’t in context now), and “sproish de English?”   And we’d already established that, so I was stuck with, “Beautiful day, huh?”

Soon we’re past the small talk and quickly form one of those unusual Camino friendships that are difficult to describe to anyone else.

And so as we walk together we begin to unpeel the layers of our respective lives, and he agrees that this rocky path is “beginning to get challenging.” (I wonder if he means our lives, or just today in particular). “It just keeps going and going, up and up and up!”

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But, mostly, time spent hiking is in silence.  Soon I take note that the directional monuments on this “alternate route” aren’t of concrete and spaced every few kilometers, but are wooden and every few yards.IMG_3758

Hmmm.  Then I again notice the clouds below me, and realize that this is not one of the inclement weather days, where the the fog is so thick that you would need trail markers every few yards.  (I later learned that there’s only about a dozen days each year with the visability have today). And I can imagine how treacherous it might be on such a foggy day or in the driving rain.  To my right is the mountain, but to the left is a sheer rocky, crumbly drop-off of about a thousand meters.  If the weather changes and it becomes such a day, I’ll be glad I can hug close to these markers, and I’ll be glad that they are spaced so much closer.

Although I’m enjoying my walk and sharing with Stefan, I know my pace is much slower than his and I encourage him to go on ahead, and not wait for me.  He does, but not really.

Then, without warning, I realize the wind is almost gale-force.  The side of the mountain is no longer at our side.  Finally we’re at the top, walking on a ridge, and the wind is screaming from one side to the other.  It is so exhilarating.

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The ridge on the top lasts about 6 Km (a little more than an hour), and the descent now down to Montefurado and then Lago is beautiful, but just incredibly difficult on my knees, even with the braces.  IMG_3789

There are two descents, both of about 200 meters, each in about 1 km. Trust me, this is pretty steep, especially on loose rock!  I have no idea how Stefan manages without poles.

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After the two downgrades we have a chance to talk again, and as we encounter a few cattle, Stefan decides he wants me to take a picture of him with them.  As he approaches the cows, one from a distance turns out to be a he and begins to run after him, ripping the ground and snorting.

Thankfully the bull stopped the pursuit after the perceived threat to his harem had passed, and we fell to the ground laughing.

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As we approached Berducedo, Stefan wants to eat dinner together, after we find the hostel and get cleaned up.  I’m really embarrassed  to admit that as much as I’d like to take him up on the offer, I’ll be boarding a bus in Berducedo to skip tomorrow’s segment, and instead will be then a day ahead of him.  I’ll be staying in Grandas de Salime tonight and hiking tomorrow to Fonsagrada.  It was unlikely that our paths would cross again.

Our walk passes the bus stop there, and we embrace to say goodbye.  He wished me, “Buen Camino” as he continues on to the next town where he has now decided to stay, another 4 km down the road.  I can’t imagine walking more.  The day has taken its toll and I am spent.

As I ride the bus, I realize how blessed I am. I’ve learned that people share our journey for a reason, and I’m so happy to have crossed paths with Stefan. When we take off our masks and let down our guards, we truly accompany each other as we walk through life.  He’d shared some pretty personal stuff with me, and I know that I’m the only one in the world that he’s told some of these things.  I’m also better for having “walked” with him.

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Camino Primitivo with Dad, 2nd Night, 10 May 2016 – Shades of Gray in Tineo

On my first Camino in 2013, I would never have considered cheating.  Much like the part of the movie (The Way), where Dr. Tom gets into a drunken argument with Jack (the Irish author) about what a “true” perigrino (pilgrim) would do or how they might travel (no creature comforts such as credit cards), I would carry my own gear and walk every inch of the journey on my own bloody blisters.

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Furthermore, we “true pilgrims” would look down at others whom hadn’t really paid their dues.  We’d scoff when others would have their backpacks sent ahead, or skip a segment or two by taking the bus.  An injury didn’t count – that was fair play and you were allowed to rest an extra day, hobble along while your goods went ahead for you, or even take a bus if you had honestly blown your knees or were bruised and bloody from a fall.

As disgusting as we looked and smelled from clothes that just wouldn’t come clean in coldwater handscrubbing, and were a little mildewy from weeks in the Galician misty drizzle, and BO that seemed to permeate through from 8 hours of exertion, somehow we could justify “looking down” at the “tourists.”

It was a funny irony that would be reciprocated.  Piling off the “Pilgrimage Buses,” those that had actually paid money to be guided to these cathedrals, monasteries, and Roman ruins would actually look at us as if we lived in a box under a bridge and desperately needed alms.

So anyway, that first year, I would never have considered violating the misery code of conduct.  It was part of the self-flagellating pilgrimage.  There were rules after all!  (Actually there is one real rule: to be awarded a “compostela,” or certificate of completion, one must actually walk the final 100 Km (200 if by bike or horseback), and get two sellos (stamps from sites you visited or where you stayed) each of those final days of that 100 Km).

But this is my third Camino, and I’m not even sure why a Compostela is even important.  (Actually, I know very well why the Compostela is important, and that will become apparent in my final post, when I’m standing in that line in Santiago).

Compostela William.jpg  Compostela Sharon.jpg

So I decided that getting that little piece of paper again, printed in Latin was important, and so I definitely would not violate those very clear requirements, but in other areas (here on the Camino, and with life in general), I was beginning to see some shades of gray.

It’s like raising your kids.  I heard a funny story about a child who swallowed a coin off of his father’s nightstand, was rushed to the physician, and was hugged with relief when the doctor told him there was nothing to worry about – that “it would pass.”  He was less and less concerned when successive children did the same thing, until the fifth child, who was promptly punished for “stealing money!”

This reminds me (and I actually remember this) of when as a toddler, I swallowed a nickel, and mom took me to Uncle Joe (her brother, but also the pediatrician for most of our small town), with the same question.  He told her pretty much the same thing, but if she was really concerned, she could “check things out herself,” and he have her a handful of wooden tongue depressor sticks.  With his quick wit, he told her that if it came out as a quarter, to keep feeding them to me.

But I digress.  The point is that as we walk through life, different things become important, as we gain perspective.

And so as I hiked a pretty challenging 600 meter incline over the first 10 Km of my day, I stopped for a late breakfast and third cafe-con-leche (my Spanish drug of choice) of the day and began to realize that my plan to complete the Camino Primitivo in 11 days was unrealistic.

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So unprepared for strait up!

In 2013, when I left France to hike the Camino Frances, which most people take 32-36 days to complete I was able to do it in 28 days.  Most would stop at about 3pm, after hiking 24-28Km, but I’d seriously trained, so I was in pretty good form and was able to hike until 5 or even 6 and get at least 35, and as much as 50km.  I also had some pretty powerful prayers powering me from home.  And if you think that’s a bunch of “who-ha,” you’re entitled, but you’d be wrong.

In 2014, when I hiked in France from SJPP to Lourdes in less than a week, I also trekked with significantly more endurance than most might be comfortable with.

But this year was different.  I was tangled up with some work issues, and then when I finally started to prepare, I caught the flu.  So I was not in my best form, and it was quickly becoming apparent to me why the Primitivo has a reputation for the most difficult of the various Camino paths.

The grade of ascent and descent, the rocks, and the periodic weather and mud were taking their toll, and I was realizing that this 14 day journey was actually a 14 day journey.

However, after travel and logistics, my planned 14 days off left me only 11 days to hike, and as I washed my clothes before my evening pilgrim’s meal, I considered my alternatives.  I reached into the deep sink to rub the bar of soap into the stench of the day’s laundry, and I hesitantly begin to consider my priorities and alternatives.  I rinse the suds from my shirt and socks for the third time, and hang them to dry.

As I sit to “examen” my day and muse through these travels, everything becomes symbolic and metaphor.  The rocks, the mud, the bloody falls, the bruises and injuries, the disappointment of fog, and the glory of the clear day from the top of the mountain.  Knowledge is different from wisdom, and only comes from perspective and trial.  And so what was really important here?   I decided –

  • I wanted my piece of paper, so the final 100Km must stay intact
  • I wanted to go to “the tops of the mountains,” to see all the magnificence and grandeur of life’s journey, so I would not be skipping any mountains.
  • I didn’t mind the pain and exertion necessary; I actually longed for the thrill of accomplishment, so I still wanted to push myself to my limits in order to feel the “penitential catharsis” of the climb.  Therefore the “tough segments” would have to stay on the itinerary, and I’d look for a day or two of road or tarmac walking to eliminate.
  • As embarrassing as it would feel getting on the bus, I realized I must do so once or twice, or I’d never make it to Santiago in time for the 12:00 noon Mass on May 17th.

My self-imposed rules are now becoming less important, and this is probably also a bit of a good thing for me.  My dualistic black and white is beginning to give way to the “spirit of the law.”

When we obey just because it’s “written,” we miss the point of why someone made it a law.  That leads to pride, arrogance, and hypocrisy.

We’re awarded a Compostela not for walking a hundred kilometers, but because we’ve traveled from afar to be close to the Apostle.  To some it’s just a “piece of paper.”

It was fun to tell everyone that I walked 868 Km in 2013, but this misses the point.  It was time with my Creator and my son.  In the movie, it wasn’t for Joost to lose weight, Jack to get past a career frustration, or so Sara could quit smoking.  The Compostela, and the Camino that it represents, is time alone – although walking sometimes with others and accompanying them –  together on this journey.

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Camino Primitivo with Dad, Day Two, 10 May 2016 – Bodenaya to Tineo

About four hours into a strenuous hike, I get into “a zone,” a place where endorphins and adrenaline place one foot in front of another, and (briefly) keep me from feeling temporal issues like burning thighs and screaming cruciates.

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And so I was halfway up an 800 meter incline, trudging through the burn, when I heard the shout in (an unusual) English, “No, William!”

I turned to see the two Canadians, wildly flailing their arms that I had missed the fork in the road – the directional monument had toppled over, and so I assumed strait ahead was in order, instead of a veering to the left.  I was pretty bummed at my wasting so much effort, but glad I hadn’t gotten to the very top to discover my mistake.

This morning reminds me of two important life lessons.  Not to miss the forest for the trees: when we’re so immersed in our work (whatever that be at any time), we miss life’s real joys and small decisions that can make life joyous, at least less regretful. In other words, stop and see the flowers, the beauty of living life.

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Otherwise life becomes getting past one task, one burden, one tragedy, so we can get on to living life.  Because these trials and challenges are life itself.  Not so much to be gotten past, but rather to live through and learn from.

My second lesson, so easy to talk about, but easier still to actually do, is “presence.”  Actually living together, with each other, and avoiding our natural inclinations to live parallel lives.  Had I not become friends with the Canadian mother and daughter yesterday, would they have even noticed my going astray?  Would I have been allowed to “go on my own way,” assuming my own decisions were “my own business?”

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Perhaps that’s the point of life itself.  Being present.

“And I’ll be my brother’s keeper, ’til the whole world knows that we’re not alone.” (Love will hold us together, by Matt Maher”)

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Camino Primitivo with Dad, First Night, 9 May 2016 – Bodenaya Albergue

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Camino Primitivo with Dad, Day One, 9 May 2016 – Oviedo

I met my wife Sharon in Oviedo (Fl), so it only seemed natural when I saw an Oviedo in Spain, beginning a Camino route called Primitivo, that I begin this year’s journey here. Problem being that I only took 12 days off, and it’s traditionally a 14 day route, so I cheated and took the bus to Salas, then, despite the weariness from jet lag and my temporal confusion from lack of sleep, I slogged on to Bodenaya, where I probably had one of the Camino’s highlights.

I would have definitely gone further, probable to la Espina, but I wasted so much time in Oviedo that I missed the bus I had intended to take, and took instead one a bit later.  Typical frustration – my ATM card didn’t work to get Euro (password blocked since I haven’t used since last year in Morocco), and couldn’t get my perigrino passport (if you’ve seen the movie, you know what this is), stamped with a cello anywhere.  I say typical, because most of my stamps are from Iglesias (churches), cathedrals, basilicas, or monasteries along the way.  But, as magnificent as they were, they were all locked. Such a sad statement on the Church in general, especially in Europe.  We gotta work on that.


I had read on someone’s blog that there was a particularly good private alburgue (a bit more costly: 8-10 Euro, instead of 5 or so for public ones), in Bodenaya.  And so, as I mentioned, I made a point to end up here today.  I knew it was a bit late, because of the change in bus schedule, but I wanted to stay here regardless.  So I left the bus and ignored the sprinkling rain.  Bodenaya.

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A Second Visit to St. James

We’re told that the trials and burdens we are sent are never more than we can bear.  I not only disagree with this, I think it’s a horrible thing to say.  Soldiers come back with PTSD, husbands die from cancer, and bullied children commit suicide.  I shared these thoughts again this morning, with 68 of my closest friends.  And so why do we suffer?

Four years ago last Thursday I drove my 19 year old son Cullen home from Florida State University with his dog Svedka.

That night we watched a movie called “The Way” about the Camino de Santiago, and agreed to make the pilgrimage ourselves when he finished his master’s degree, which would have been 2 years later. This would be that last thing I would ever do with my son. He was killed in an accident two weeks later.

My wife Sharon says I was broken on that day.  I know why suicide becomes an option for so many people without hope. Without faith.

Like CS Lewis in A Grief Observed, I lay on the floor, in the fetal position, screaming at God for not caring, for making a mistake, for sending so much pain.  It should have been me, I would have gladly given my life as ransom.

But this is no longer just a sad story, it’s one of redemption.

When I walked the Camino de Santiago in 2013, it was truly life changing.  I was transformed from a miserable, broken person who needed to make the world cry, to a man with a beautiful story of God’s mercy and love.

I now know that my God doesn’t send such suffering.  No, my God is good, and by definition, only good.  My God has wept with me, knowing the pain of loss.  He has laughed with me and loved me.  He lifted me and carried me when I was so hurting.

As I walked up and down the Pyrenees with swollen knees and bloody blisters, I was changed.  My transformation was nothing short of miraculous.  Of course I’m still broken, but I know that my son, in His arms, interceded for me.  For healing and redemption.

And so every year, around this time, as the anniversary of my darkest day draws near, I’ve looked away, ignoring the pull – in 2014 I went to Lourdes, and in 2015 I went to Morocco – all meaningful, appropriate, and memorable.

But, like the feeling you get when someone is staring at you in a crowd, like that frustrating need to turn around to go back home when you’ve forgotten something, or that little tug at your heart when you remember you need to tell someone thank you, I know I have to go back.  Once you’ve taken the pilgrimage, the signs to return are everywhere.

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On my blog posts and in person, I’ve literally told thousands of people how fantastic the Camino has been for me.

What could be life changing about hiking with 25# on you back, for 8 or 10 hours a day for a month?

I started in St. Jean Pier de Port, France as a miserable person, with a heartbreaking story to tell.  And I did.  And now I apologize to dozens of beautiful people who shared their stories with me about their divorces, dead mothers, mid life crises, unemployment, ungrateful or fallen away children, and even lost faith.  I apologize because most of them wilted in tears when they reciprocated what I had asked them, “Why I was walking the Camino.”  Nothing can compare with the death of a child.  I was one miserable man, and I wanted everyone to know how horrible life was and how stupid they all should feel because their problems paled in comparison, and weren’t even important.

But they were.  They were just as important and as heavy a burden as mine was.

And so, somewhere along “The Way,” I found myself.  I was transformed from a man who hated this world and everyone who got to keep on living like nothing had changed, to someone who told a different story.  Somewhere along “The Way” I stopped needing to make everyone else cry.

I realized that we all carry crosses and they are so very heavy for each of us.  Mine is not heavier than yours.  And I’ve come to know that, through God’s grace, my own journey can lift people.

Our perspective changes when we experience loss.  When we open the door to mercy, we allow Him to heal us.  We don’t become magical or blessed, but simply capable of walking with others in their own struggles.  We know the chilling of broken pain, and the warmth of His embrace.

And so, I leave tomorrow to walk the Camino de Santiago.  Again.

This time will be a different route, with different struggles.  Please keep me in your prayers.  And know that every step, I’ll keep you in mine.

You can follow my journey, again on this blog.  And if you’re so inclined, I’d be humbled for you to again contribute to my son’s memorial scholarship fund (see link above).

Much Love.

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Mama Needs Coffee

Brew. Gulp. Repeat

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God | Family | Coffee | Books | Gilmore Girls | Harry Potter | Photography | Music

theological pipe

Put that in your theological pipe and smoke it...

Jonathan's Blog

Reflections on the glory of God

Some Days in My Lives

Loving Pets and Their People

trekker2013's Blog

The greatest WordPress.com site in all the land!

john pavlovitz

Stuff That Needs To Be Said

dogtorbill

“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

The Neighborhood

Society online's creative conscious.

thegoldenlimoncello.wordpress.com/

If life gives you lemons...then make some limoncello

gidivet camino

learning the unforced rhythms of grace

The Cereal Bowl

Taking life one spoonful at a time

St. Val the Eccentric

Contemplative musings on life and faith from a creative original

howsyourlovelife

Improving my love of life.... through loving God, self and others

Thinking Out Loud

Children Matter

sharsharklein

This WordPress.com site is the cat’s pajamas

Positively Sober

I'm just a girl from Boston living with AIDS and addiction. Two diseases, one slogan: Silence = death.

Catholic Mom of Michigan

"She is clothed in strength & dignity and laughs without fear of the future." Proverbs 31:25

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