Atop the armoire in my bedroom sits a wooden box about nine inches square, with an ornamental brass latch and a church-key lock. It is a worthy looking box made of oak with a rustic yet elegant finish, and clearly intended to last for a long time. Because the armoire is across from my bed, it and the box are often the first things I see when waking.
I placed it there a little over ten years ago when I first moved-in. Life (and I) had just officially changed forever, and this quiet, simple home suited my new circumstances perfectly. Weekly since, I've moved the box for dusting, and though I've changed the placement of other items, it has always returned to the same spot (on the right side, close to the front, angled slightly toward the center). Its specific positioning speaks of ritual. I have rarely opened it. So rarely, in fact, that at any given moment I'm unsure of the specific contents. Lately though, for some reason I've been drawn to the box for I think it may contain something sacred, something of time, as if it was a tabernacle. My previous diffidence has given me pause, and the other day I finally did open it.
As I lifted its lid at last, I almost expected to hear a slight hiss of air. The first object I saw was a rolled Boy Scout neckerchief threaded through a dark metal clasp, then another unthreaded Cub Scout clasp. There was a school photo of my boy as a happy, innocent, handsome 11-year-old, taken in that blessed and beautiful time before the storms gathered, long before the day he ended his earthly life, the day when everything changed. Lying with these items was my credencial, my pilgrim passport from the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Talk about poetic. How to move among these things without hearing the songs of memory? How to close the space between them all? How to not call love by its new name?
These objects were arranged almost in a circle as the significant things in life seem to be. Start at any point in the circle, the pain will come, the pain will bring change, and so on. It’s certainly nothing personal. A crucifixion, a pause, a resurrection, and back again...the mystical ways of being in time for a while.
Perhaps a kind of magic lies in that pause, though. Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday was a very quiet Saturday. I would suggest it is there the world beneath appearance exerts its exquisitely subtle influence. Nothing in that world is obvious, but here in time it can be a mighty long day indeed. Things need to be gathered, lives arranged, circumstances developed, paths crossed, patience and faith required throughout. Then slowly, even glacially, something wonderful begins to flicker and the rising stirs. Love’s new name becomes clearer in the holy pause as the heart-now-ripened softens and opens into compassion it could not have otherwise known. Maybe sometimes in a flash but more often not, it’s revealed at last that it all belonged. It couldn’t have been a circle otherwise. Turns out a long, thin road in Spain has no real end after all in spite of what those many passport stamps would suggest.
Talismans found in a wooden box compel a walk through time and remembrance that bears down hard on the soul and begs to be known more deeply, yet always remains just-shy of real understanding. So much needs to be taken on faith. But from this box, love’s new name is finally revealed as grief. It’s time at last for grief to go on pilgrimage, to go forth and do some good in the world, to meet others, to serve them, and to let go of the suffering. For now, this is enough to understand.
As always, love, by any name, is the answer.
In the Catholic tradition, when the Feast of Saint James (Santiago) falls on a Sunday, that year is considered a Holy Year, and so a time of great celebration in Spain and on the Camino de Santiago. In honor of this, I offer the following brief excerpt from my book, Into the Thin. Here, I'm kneeling before the reliquary said to contain the bones of the Saint. It is the physical object of the pilgrimage - a moment of prayerful consideration. From Chapter 20 of the book...
Here I choose to suspend my skepticism regarding its contents. Are they really the bones of the Saint, or a Camino legend hovering in some vague netherworld of superstition and fact-tinged belief? Was this merely an elaborate story created to inspire the Spanish people in their fight with the Muslims and then perpetuated throughout the centuries? I do not care. Its truth lies in the journeys of those who have made their way here for over a thousand years through mountain passes, deep rolling hills, and seeming endless, unshaded plains through all manner of weather. It lies in the kindness afforded them by strangers and each other, the infinite stories and purposes that called them here, and the mysterious intelligence that carried them on its power. The truth of it lies in every realized revelation of every pilgrim who ever walked. It lies in their utter surrender to the ways of the road. Whatever is contained in this reliquary has served Creation exceedingly well. And so I pray and honor those who came before me and those who will follow. I honor every thought that comes to them on their own country roads of home that lead them here.
One of the most joyful experiences for any Camino pilgrim is the opportunity to meet and speak with those who have shared the experience. Please enjoy this lovely conversation with the wonderful Leigh Brennan on her Camino Cafe Podcast. This one grabbed me right smack in the heart. I hope you enjoy watching this as much as I did chatting with her.
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 (email@example.com) - 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)