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.
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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,
The Trail can be trusted.
It has never let me down.
It’s led me across streams,
across the saddles of hills,
threaded through stands of trees,
blazed and reassuring.
I can always trust the good Trail
beyond even the need for trust.
The farther I go, the deeper-in to holy forest,
more the good and silent air surrounds me.
A benediction of March wind whispers through high tree tops
as my shoes kick through November’s leaves
and step smartly over outcrops of ledge
walking toward the center where I can clearly hear,
"What may lie outside the Trail head and down the road a bit
will never encroach upon
good and trusted Trail."
Although the publication date remains September 15, 2020, the advance copy of my first work, Into The Thin, A Pilgrimage Walk Across Northern Spain, was sent to me from the publisher. From a year of tragic circumstances and a mysterious calling to walk the Camino de Santiago, to a vague notion of scribbling something down about it all, the manuscript given me to write has been turned into a book. I am profoundly grateful and frankly humbled. My very first book. It’s getting real.
I can still so easily remember a time when he would wake me up in the middle of the night, crying to be fed and given a diaper-change. Together, we would pad down to the kitchen, I'd warm a bottle of breast milk, settle into a chair in the living room, and try not to fall back asleep while feeding him. Seems he's woken me again. It's just after two in the morning as I write these words.
Today is the 38th anniversary of the birth of my son Keith. I don't use the term birthday any more. That word expired when he did in October, 2010 (I noted that occasion with a poem in this journal - I'll re-post it below).
His birth, life, and death take up a sizable footprint in my forthcoming book Into the Thin, a work currently in the later stages of its own birth. In those pages, one will find a lovely account of his entrance into this world. I'd entertained the idea of lifting an excerpt to note the day, but the copyright goes into effect in 2020 and I don't know if it's okay to do that yet. Just as well, I suppose. I wasn't rattled from sleep to post old words. New words reflect newer understandings.
I don't mourn as I once did. Grief, like most things, is fluid. These days it's more about wondering. Mourning tends to be preoccupied with why. Wondering leans toward how. I was 25 years old when he was born. It's odd to recall this now at 63. I'm not that 25 year old any more, not even close. How I'd have loved to tell my 38 year old son what it was like then, how scared shitless I was, but also the understanding his birth gave me about how life appears (and disappears)...about how we don't come into this world as much as we materialize out of it. And then dissolve back into it.
I'm cursed and blessed with the noble stage of grief that is acceptance. There is no 38 year old son. He dissolved - and forever I might add. Back into the All. The Everything. The Only. An exercise in memory, but more lovely as years pass.
Here are a couple of poems, the first one a mystical recounting of an actual canoe trip we took many years ago on the Delaware River, and the second its more recent companion piece.
All In A Dream (A Remembrance)
We beached our beautiful canoe
on a sandy shore beside the river
just past a fine rapid-run
and made a good camp
at the edge of the flood plain forest
with a proud fire we made from friction
and dry things
We ate well and drank cleanly
as dusk fell-in
and all around was good quiet and blue light
and our voices which never rose above a whisper.
Never had to…so quiet.
Sleep came right there
beside the proud fire
and in the morning the light was golden amber
and the mist was rising thick from the river
and he was missing.
I made my way to the river’s edge
to where the beautiful canoe had been.
And looking down river I saw him fading,
into the mist
rounding a forever bend.
I called but no sound came.
No sound could.
All in a dream.
The water flows
along its course
a flat current through stream or river.
Until a whirlpool forms,
who knows why or how?
Maybe the water just wants to spin and dance a while.
But from the always-water
comes a swirling for a time,
and then something changes
who knows why or how?
Maybe the water wishes some rest.
And the whirlpool dissolves
back to the flat current
of the always water.
Around the bends
and over the rocks
and under the keels
of beautiful canoes.