What is the gift?
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?
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