If you've arrived here after watching my interview with Greg Dwyer on Nutmeg TV's Mindful Conversations show, welcome! While we were chatting, Greg was kind to mention an event I have upcoming in the area. Please click on the Morris Public Library for information and registration for the reading / book talk taking place there on Thursday, June 3rd, at 6:30pm. Books will be available for sale and signing. If you already have a copy, I'd love to sign it!
Feel free to reach out via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) - I'd love to hear from you! I can also be found on Facebook at Author Stephen Drew. Please visit The Book page on this website for information on how to obtain a copy of Into The Thin, A Pilgrimage Walk Across Northern Spain.
Authors note: This was originally an article written for a magazine during mid-spring, 2020, to be published in their June issue. The magazine went belly-up before they printed. I offer this now, nearly a year later, as a bit of a time piece, and some perspective as we begin to emerge from our collective catastrophe.
I must first disclose a few things. I am in my middle 60s, and the days of traditional work responsibilities are behind me. I have no debt, and outwardly live a simple, solitary, minimalistic life. These circumstances do not compare with the stresses facing most people in the midst of this outbreak and its seemingly endless forms of fallout. For now at least, my lifestyle disturbances have been minimal. Of course this could change in a moment, but living as I do allows for a more contemplative interior experience of whatever the world may present. Although I do feel disruption and disquiet, it is mostly the result of the collective consciousness that surrounds me, the heaviness of it all. Though certainly not immune from fear, my predominant feelings these days are compassion and a discreet yet heartfelt sadness. It is from this place in life I offer what follows.
Because of my years, I’ve come to know of a few things—things that seem to be salient now, that may be worthy of review. They were brought to me by circumstances, events meant to encourage the kind of reflection that allowed me to realize something deeper and richer, perhaps to awaken and become more aware of something previously unknown, or be reminded of something already realized. Clearly I’m not alone in what I’m about to share. Though the circumstances differ, my kin are legion for it is the way of the human experience. Pain is almost always the precursor to something greater, and there seems to be a relationship between the severity of the pain and the degree of awakening. With all my heart I hope this is true, especially now with this pain we all feel.
The following circumstances represented the ending of the world (mine). Relatively few knew of this world-ending, and I’ll admit it was a source of consternation. I wanted to ask (scream in fact) how the larger world could possibly continue in the face of what had just happened. But in a compressed period of time it was all washed away in a flood of grief and loss and upheaval. Though it was necessary for what followed, in its midst it just seemed cruel and merciless.
Because space is at a premium, I offer this abridged version: One year. Close friend and mentor suffers a relapse of a chronic disease. Father-in-law becomes fatally ill and dies. Step child suffers a major health crisis. First born child (my son) ends his life by hanging. Aforementioned close friend and mentor succumbs. 14 year marriage ends. One year. A world dissolved in an emotional crucifixion.
In the immediate aftermath of this, it was required that I move, change jobs, and essentially start over at 54 years of age. Finding my place in a small, bucolic town in northwest Connecticut, I suddenly became engaged in the new habit of daily walking. I don’t have a conscious recollection of how this came about, but it made sense and immediately felt unifying of body, mind, and spirit. I would dare say I began to heal. Not long after, I ran across a quote from Saint Augustine. “It is solved by walking,” he said.
About a year later, while hiking on one hot and humid August afternoon, something really strange happened. I had never before experienced anything like it, and thought at the time I’d probably lost my mind. It would have been understandable I suppose. One foot had lifted in a step, and before it could return to the ground the experience of walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain came into me as a complete reality. Just like that, called to walk a thousand year old, 500 mile spiritual pilgrimage from the south of France to northwest Spain. The thought that immediately followed suggested that I continue living fully in what was before me, that though the timing was not yet right to go, something awaited me there on unknown ground. It is said miracles happen on the Camino—at the very least maybe the chance to center a troubled self, to re-assemble a disintegrated world. Along the way of a sacred pilgrimage, maybe even resurrection is possible.
On the Camino, life is breathtakingly simple. After waking I’d pray and then place all of my belongings in a backpack, shoulder the pack, and walk. Other than food and shelter, there would be no real concerns for 36 walking days. Pray, walk, meditate, reflect, and listen. Absent of the noise and distraction of the world as I once knew it, all that remained was to fall into the deepest, most primitive parts of myself. There were answers here, ironically as close as my breath after traveling across an ocean to this place. In a way, I think going to Spain was an act of commitment, an answered call. Something would have had to come of it.
Of all the many revelations that came while walking the Camino, one stands out as particularly relevant to this little allegory of mine. On a cloudless morning, I was walking in the company of a German man, one who didn’t feel the need to fill silence with words. We’d been chatting for a few kilometers of walking, but had become quiet. The thin yellow band of the road was coursing through the green meadows before me, revealing some pilgrims making their way in small bands, others walking alone. In a fleeting moment, something changed. I saw them as a single entity in collective movement. I saw myself as part of that movement. There was no separation, no real difference, only the one of us, our collective heart. I no longer saw pilgrims, but pilgrimage stitched into the fabric of the road and meadows, of the sky and the world itself. Though little more than a glimpse at the time, it could never be forgotten or unseen. It became a forever truth. A joyful requiem of apartness, it changed everything.
Now, in these moments, these exceedingly uncertain and troubling times when once again the world as I know it is ending, that forever truth is re-awakened. I am not in competition with my fellows. I am in cooperation, for the whole thing is woven together seamlessly—you, me, the world itself. Despite the notion of distancing, we are inseparable. Our experience is global, collective, and universal. Our attention has been secured. What shall we do?
In the rural area where I live, the big city dwellers are flocking here now that work and schools have closed, seeking refuge in more open and peaceful spaces. Some of my fellow locals are fearful and resentful, but of course they would do the very same thing. Life is in default. As electricity will always go to ground, humans will seek safety. Although I understand the need for these visitors to self-isolate for a while, I still want to go to each of them and say, “Thank God you’ve made it to us! Welcome!”
Similarly, I’ve been observing my troubled fellows as they make their way about (usually at the grocery—one of the few places I can see them). Their furrowed brows etched in chronic worry, framing the occasional brave smile, they search for the objects that may bring them an illusion of security and control. Nearly all the conversations I overhear and many of those directed toward me are variations on the one essential, pleading question: “What, oh what will happen?” How well I remember that one as my own world ended, as nearly every single domain of the life I once lived was changed forever.
And yet…how I wish I could tell them that even in an apocalypse, personal or otherwise, there are blessings to be found, gifts to be granted, callings to be answered, new directions taken. How I wish I was able to join with them in the deepest primitive places we share, and convince them that if these dreadful seeds of circumstance are sown in the rich, loamy soil of love and compassion and even gratitude, miracles will happen.
Someone once asked me a question in the aftermath of my own ended world—made no sense at the time. None. “What is the gift?” they asked. I could respond only with a quizzical look. The question was repeated.
To answer now, I remember myself to Spain and rejoin the Camino and all it taught me. The gift continues. It began as long ago as time, and includes every moment, every breath, every circumstance and experience, every relationship and acquaintance, every victory and defeat, all the joy and all the heartbreak. The times I’d been abandoned, and times I felt wondrously looked-after, the unspeakable grief and softest comfort. It has all belonged. It has all delivered me. Here is the gift: Love is all there is, and it is the answer. Whatever could be the problem?
* A note to you - It's been awhile since I've posted here; some other things have preoccupied me.*
“Music is what language would love to be if it could.” – John O’Donohue
I cannot even pretend to know anything of substance about the piano or how it is played. The concept of reading a musical chart is well beyond me. I’ve never understood music theory with its nearly infinite intellectual nuances, nor have I ever sounded intelligent discussing such things. These are my disclaimers, my free admission of musical ignorance.
What I do know is what happens in my innermost when a finger presses a key, a hammer drops to a string, and a noise is made. The act is for the player. It comes full circle in the soul of the listener. A note complete. On to the next. Anyone can press the key and make a noise. Few can express their very being through the key and by doing so let the rest of us know we are alive.
I first heard the jazz piano playing of Keith Jarrett in the late 1970s when he was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. In the interest of full disclosure, I listened to this performance under the influence of an evening’s worth of marijuana consumption. It’s fair to say I was immersed in the listening experience despite the TV speaker’s poor quality.
I had never heard playing like this. The notes flooded me, the spaces between the notes almost nonexistent, perhaps two or three pauses in the whole piece. It flowed seemingly unimpeded from consciousness, a rumbling, incessant roll through his left hand, scatting lightly through his right. Tears in my eyes, I almost fell out of the chair. Next day I thought maybe it was just the weed. Turns out it was not.
On the heels of my first divorce some years later, I retreated into music (among other things), and one of the primary experiences I would afford myself was listening to the complete recording of his legendary Koln concert. I would have to schedule such times in advance because it was a double album, so intimate and complete that I could not bear to listen to just a side or two at a time. I required the all of it because that is how it was played, in two completely improvised parts on a piano that, like me, was broken. The first, nearly half an hour on side one, the rest on sides two, three, and four. In the days of vinyl records, the turning-over process was excruciating.
I would lay on the floor of a darkened room between my high-quality loudspeakers and listen to the soundtrack of my life and marriage, my early fatherhood, my utter failure. I heard the longing voice of it all through those fingers placed to the keys, pressed perfectly to drop the hammer to the string, the note complete, on to the next. The notes like brushstrokes, the brushstrokes like words, the words leading back to the notes. And so on. Left hand rolling, right hand noodling through my dark night, embracing its crushing sadness, yet holding out hope that someday just maybe, most if not all will be well…riding the notes, the strokes, the words, all the way from the dark womb of experience to the light of some future resurrection. This was not just some jazz tune.
I fell out of touch with Jarrett’s work in the ensuing years. It was displaced by other forms, but never forgotten; as determinative to my inner life as adolescence, as a broken heart, as desperation, as any particular sunrise. Life is about movement and bending of time.
I recently read a few articles reporting that at age 75, he can no longer use his left hand. Something happened in his brain…a couple of strokes it was said, not likely to ever return other than perhaps to hold a cup it was also said. But what has me in such a sad mood as I write, is what he said: “I don’t feel right now like I’m a pianist. That’s all I can say about that.”
How I wish I could have heard his voice as he spoke, could have watched his eyes. Then I could possibly know his grief, his longing, his desperation, his hope for something better…the same notes he played to me from a long-ago stage in Koln.
I’d like to send those notes back in some way, return them from my innermost through the air to the string, the hammer, the key, his hand. I’d like him to find a way, in his 76th year on earth, to play a flood of notes through that right hand, notes no one else on earth could ever hope to play. I’d like him to do it in a single take, on some dark stage, lit by one spotlight, and see what happens when two hands-worth of soul comes out of one. I’d like him to find a way to feel like a pianist again.
Perhaps a silent prayer…
During the spring of 2016, sixty years of living was circumscribed on a five hundred mile pilgrimage across Spain.
Then came the words.
Now, four years later, they belong to you at last. If this goes well, you might read my story and come to know your own more deeply.
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I’ve not placed words here in a while. Been a little preoccupied, possibly even cranky. This tends to happen when I don’t place words for too long a time…I really should know better.
My first book is coming in September, and I must admit there is some associated emotional and psychic baggage that I’ve been lugging around. I suppose as with any birth, especially the first, it should be expected, but still it’s caught me flat-footed and a little out of sorts. Adding to this is the state of the world into which the book is arriving. Traditional book launching activities that involve gathering humans have been utterly upended by our pandemic, yet plans still need to be made. I’ve been indecisive and somewhat demotivated, and I’m sure the collective angst in the air isn’t helping. All of this has left me anxious and (definitely) cranky. Not all is gloomy, however. Thus far, in addition to all the kind encouragement from those who have read, I’ve had a lovely interview featured in a local newspaper as well as a podcast conversation, and more of such things are on the horizon…I’m grateful. I would also note these things happened with minimal involvement from my own best thinking ̶ a good thing to keep in mind.
To a casual observer, the birth of a book can appear to be a beginning, but closer to reality it is more the inevitable closing of a circle. The first sentence of Into the Thin reads: Who knows where or when anything really begins? Indeed. Nearly one hundred thousand words, and several years after that line was written, I’m still wondering. These days, the feeling is reminiscent of arriving in Santiago de Compostela as the pilgrimage walk ended with the last of one million steps. They play bagpipes there for arriving pilgrims. In the book, I referred to this as a requiem, but I knew then it wasn’t over. I would still be going to the coast of Spain to walk there a while so that more could be revealed. I would come home. I would integrate the insights of the Camino into my life over time. Unknown to me then, I would write a book. A publisher would eventually put it to print. But these days I think my first real act of pilgrimage may finally be ending. The experience continues, but it seems the walk is just about done.
Still, I am endlessly interested in what lies around the bend, and to be honest, the next pilgrimage route has been whispering for some time…
"His body rotated as it mercifully expelled seemingly spring-loaded from his mother in a torrent of fluids and relief. He came into the world as a still, porcelain little god, ashen colored, unanimated. There was palpable concern in the room and I wanted to look away for fear he was dead. In an instant came a thought, and as I now recall, it was remarkably similar to the thought that called me to the Camino. It told me with absolute clarity to look, because there was something I must see, something I must not miss, something beyond a mere heartbeat. So I continued to look, and then I saw the form become possessed of life with a subtle little twitch, then color, then movement, then his sound. The gravitas in the room gave way to joy and they handed him to me, my reluctant little passenger."
(From Chapter Nine of Into the Thin, A Pilgrimage Walk Across Northern Spain)
“I wanted to leave in the pre-dawn light, the vague, gray light that speaks of beginnings and new things, a light that invites but promises nothing…”
Into the Thin, A Pilgrimage Walk Across Northern Spain (Prologue)
Four years ago today, could I ever have imagined the birth of a book? Grateful for miracles.
Publishers love pre-orders, and I do so love my publisher! If you order through any of the following options, they will ship on the book’s publication date, 9/15/20.
Ordering directly from Homebound Publications is always best and includes a 20% discount (coupon code INDIESTRONG).
If paying full price works better for you the book is also available from either Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
An ancient pilgrimage calls from afar after a year of incomprehensible tragedy and loss. Join in a transcendent, healing journey of body, mind, heart, and spirit along Spain’s beautiful Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James. Experience a story told in the language of the soul.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my boy lately. It’s likely our troubled times have triggered this at least to some extent. Collective sorrow will do that. Grief is not as specific as we’ve been led to believe. Being given to writing things down as a way to process life, I thought it would be a good time to drop him a line. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind…
It’s been awhile. I don’t know where or how you are. I don’t even really know what you are—in what if any form you may be. No matter. As you know, from time to time I’ll enter the place of the happy dream and entertain the notion that you might still in some way be aware of me. So here I am…entertaining once more.
I hope you are at peace. I know. I always say that, don’t I? I’m getting a bit old and have become prone to repetition, but it’s all I ever wanted for you, even before you left. We have a lot of confusion and controversy here about what happens to those who take their lives. I’ve tried to let go of my own curiosity about this because it doesn’t bring me any satisfaction to pursue something I’ll never know. In the meantime I settle the uncertainty by defaulting to another question that works in many ways: What would Love do (with something like this)?
I know it was about the pain. You told me that once and it really stuck with me. Everything I’ve found since then has proven you were quite correct. You found an answer, found several in fact, tried them all. They worked. The only problem was they were all unsustainable, every one. The answers always led to bigger problems than the pain you were trying to relieve. They took your health, your relationships, your mind. They took your natural inclination to continue life as you knew it. You may now be aware this left behind consequences in the lives of others, but those burdens are our own to bear. You’ve had enough.
The reason I’m writing is to fill you in about this world you left behind. Again, this will prove your theory about the pain was quite correct. We, like you, have lost our way somehow. We didn’t really mean for this to happen, but it all became so…complicated. I’m sure you understand. We seem to keep answering incorrectly with unsustainable solutions.
I’d bet the ranch that since you left, you’ve found out how fearfully you were living while here. Personally, I think you were terrified (not judging, just an observation). I would submit we are as well. And wouldn’t you know it, turns out a microscopic ball of proteins is what it took to reveal this to us. It moved from an animal to a human, and in a few months brought the whole goddamn world to its knees. You would not believe the consequences of this thing. The dots all connected at last and here we all are, faced with a similar circumstance as you did in your bedroom closet nearly ten years ago. Do we continue on as before with the unsustainable, or do we find our way at last and end the insanity (albeit not by self-annihilation)? Talk about existential.
As I’ve mentioned in past letters and unspoken ramblings to you, I’m of the belief that virtually every experience in life on earth distills down to one of only two things. Here I mean experience to include all problems and all solutions. I’ve found looking at life this way has become a matter of habit, which is why I seem so confident in saying the two things are…love or fear. I wonder how you’d weigh in on this given what you may have more recently come to know.
I’m pretty sure it has been our collective fear that brought us to this point in history—this now. The distillate of most if not all of our problems is fear. Solutions however, can go either way. This is the crossroads at which we find ourselves. What shall it be? The first steps of each path are being revealed. We can see the roads before us laid out, but only to the first bend. My own humble past compels me to review. Every time I’ve chosen the way of fear, the only results have been more fear and another dead-end. If love is the answer as I believe it to be, where oh where do we even begin?
I suppose it could only begin here—in here, in our all-too-human hearts. I’ve had some prior experience with being bludgeoned into submission. As you well know, I was once faced with an existential crisis and stood at a crossroads. An answer to life had not only failed me, but had also utterly blinded me to a solution. Just like you, I was left at a place where the problematic answer could neither continue nor end. In the presence of a seeming lack of options, what else could there have been but surrender?
I would submit that it is in this precise place where Grace makes itself known. Like electricity flowing to ground and rivers making their way to the sea, it just naturally follows along to this perfect spot where denial mercifully takes its leave and a new answer is revealed. As impersonal as gravity yet loving as God Itself, the only requirements left are to keep vigilant watch and accept it when it arrives. It may not always be obvious. I think you know this—got past you every time.
Son, it seems our world needs a reset. Grace is seeing to this. Though we have brought this on, the solution is as contagious as a virus beginning in each infected heart and spreading like light. So keep a good thought for us who remain here, would you? Keep a good thought that we can see and act rightly, and as we find the answers, treat each other well. We need all the help we can get.
Love is the answer.
I miss you,