Standing at the Helm of Destiny

The vista of Alto de Perdón.

The vista of Alto de Perdón.

“Have you ever sailed across an ocean Donald … on a sailboat, surrounded by sea with no land in sight, without even the possibility of sighting land for days to come? To stand at the helm of your destiny. I want that, one more time. I want to be in the Piazza del Campo in Siena. To feel the surge as 10 racehorses go thundering by. I want another meal in Paris, at L’Ambroisie, at the Place des Vosges. I want another bottle of wine. And then another. I want the warmth of a woman and a cool set of sheets. One more night of jazz at the Vanguard. I want to stand on the summits and smoke Cubans and feel the sun on my face for as long as I can. Walk on the Wall again. Climb the Tower. Ride the River. Stare at the Frescos. I want to sit in the garden and read one more good book. Most of all I want to sleep. I want to sleep like I slept when I was a boy. Give me that, just one time. That’s why I won’t allow that punk out there to get the best of me, let alone the last of me.” ~ James Spader as Raymond Reddington in “The Blacklist”

 

If life’s peaks and valleys have taught me nothing else in 50 years, they’ve shown me the importance of recognizing seasons when you should just be still. When you feel like you’re in the wilderness, the best thing you can do is embrace the quiet and listen.

Most of 2015 was such a season for me. And it was, furthermore, a year when I thought a lot about my own mortality.

Entering my sixth year of a career funk, (some would call that more than a short dry spell) I’d spent much of 2014 considering the next major move. There was a strong draw to a six-figure investment for a retail franchise I really liked, then a movie about a successful chef with a food truck brought some surprising inspiration about that notion. Go figure. Needless to say, I was all over the map, and both required money I could probably get, but couldn’t necessarily afford. At this point wounds from closing my beloved publishing business in 2008 were healed, but I still remember how much they hurt. It’s not a pain I want to feel again, and with it all comes a certain sense of caution. When clouds of caution hang like heavy fog over a risk-taking personality, it’s constant inner turmoil. A betting friend of mine says, “Scared money never wins.”

I’d always heard the ages between 45 and 55 were the most productive times of a man’s life – the time when he makes a real contribution. The urge to sink my energies, and invest my time into something real, was, well, real. But this is also an age when you first begin experiencing the loss of important people, many of whom shaped how you are, and what you think and believe.

The unusually high number of friends, mentors and other acquaintances who died that year pulled me in another direction that whispered, “Time is short. Forget a career. Experience your purpose. I’ll take care of the rest. Breathe.”

***

Cultural change and progressive attitudes over time can be a good thing. Society evolves, and that’s a double-edged sword. The evolution of how we think makes many things better. But it also often moves us in the opposite direction of many things that are true. One of the cute little sayings that’s made its way into society is this notion that “everything happens for a reason.” The idea is based on a dangerously liberal paraphrase from Romans 8:28 which reads:

“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.”

So yes, God’s infinite wisdom and sovereign reign over all creation make everything work in His behalf, and in His time, but the gift of our own free will means we screw a lot of things up along the way. Much of what we do was never in God’s greater plan. The very idea that everything I’ve done in my life was perfectly in line and with the greater good makes me laugh out loud. I know disobedience personally.

Free will means we have the freedom to make mistakes. It’s also a gift, given by the Creator, consistent with his creative nature, that allows us to shape our lives in beautiful ways, learning uniquely, and growing as we go. It requires that we have a certain comfort level with uncertainty.

It requires faith.

***

Signage at the Alto de Perdón monument very roughly translated "where the path crosses the place where the wind meets the stars."

Signage at the Alto de Perdón monument very roughly translated “where the path crosses the wind.”

With anxiety and a sense of urgency over my career growing inside every cell of my spirit in early 2015, it would’ve been easy to make a bad decision, and a bad decision could’ve been costly in more ways than one. The time wasn’t right to do something big, and I knew it. So I bought myself some time in a crazy, low-risk sort of way. I bought a lawnmower and a trailer, and decided to mow yards for a living until the next move became clear. It’s the best decision/non-decision I’ve made in a long time.

I had about 12 yard-mowing clients in the summer of 2015. It’s really hard work when the temperatures are high. But it was a good way to be my own boss, and gave me much needed time to think about a bigger move, also giving us a bit of bill-paying money. The unexpected benefit is there’s a certain sense of satisfaction in work like mowing yards. At the end of the day, you can look back and see you’ve really done something. It’s important, I think, especially to men.

Once I realized that, and really thought about it, my next move became crystal clear. As much as I’d been patient in recent years, and done my best to listen, on July 4 as I was preparing a backyard barbecue for family and friends, I realized I needed to go away, be even more intentional with my listening, and pursue something I’d been thinking about for nearly three years.

I needed to do something to feel like a man again, and remembered a C.S. Lewis quote I’d first read in John Eldridge’s book, Wild at Heart.

“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

I walked into my office, fired up the computer and booked an October 19 plane ticket to Madrid. A 500-mile walk across Spain might just be the perfect place to figure things out, and even feel like a real man again.

***

Fourteen kilometers west of Pamplona, pilgrims reach the peak of Alto de Perdón (the high place of forgiveness). It’s a significant stop on the Camino made even more famous in a special scene in Emilio Estevez’s The Way. Like many personal experiences we all encounter, it’s difficult to describe exactly how you feel at this place where the vista seems almost endless, and you can look back nearly 70 kilometers to see how far you’ve come. It’s one of those rare feelings you never want to end.

As I reached the peak of Alto de Perdón my feet were blistered, my back hurt, and my legs were just beginning to sense the effects of a long-distance walk. I looked across the amazing sight of the Spanish countryside and was thankful for every ache and pain. I’d asked for this through the gift of my own free will.

With no idea what tomorrow would bring, it was the first time in years when I felt I was standing at the helm of my destiny. It was a defining moment.

-30-

Pamplona – Camino Magic

(Above: Heinrich’s reading the Pilgrim’s blessing before leaving Pamplona. It was one of the most special moments I experienced on Camino.)

 

 

Casa Paderborn in Pamplona

Casa Paderborn in Pamplona

“We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.” ~ J.K. Rowling

“The deepest of level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless … beyond speech … beyond concept.” ~ Thomas Merton

 

(Blogger’s Note: This is an excerpt from my manuscript, #PilgrimStrong).

In all the research and pre-reading before leaving Arkansas for Spain, there were a couple of phrases that always sort of bothered me.

“Camino Magic” and “…the Camino provides” are the legendary pilgrim ideas about how something special can, and often does, happen on pilgrimage. The general idea is that if you find yourself truly in need of something along the Way, that very thing will likely find its way to you. Letting go of control is a rite of pilgrim passage.

I’m a no-nonsense journalist, realist, and one who many would say has a narrow view of “religion.” I don’t think it’s true, but in a progressive world I understand why many would believe it. The notion of a place having some sacred, mystical, magical power just didn’t fly with my belief system.

That is, until I met Heinrich.

***

Bridge over the Arga River entering Pamplona

Bridge over the Arga River entering Pamplona

If you’re walking the Camino Frances, your feet will let you know by Pamplona if they plan to give you trouble, especially with blisters. I was just a few hours short of the great city that hosts the annual running of the bulls when my feet let me know just that. Approaching a small picnic area on the outskirts of Zabaldica I decided to stop and pull my shoes off, afraid of what my eyes would see. And I was even more concerned about what it would mean in the immediate days ahead. Just as I’d feared, there were now full-blown blisters on, not one, but both feet.

I’d trained fairly rigorously in the flatlands near my home. I think it’s the combination of friction from ascending and descending elevations, and the reality of double-digit miles day after day that surprises many pilgrims with blisters they thought they’d pre-prevented. The picnic table was a welcome rest site and I snacked on some cheese and a Coke Zero allowing my feet to dry before I applied some petroleum jelly. That was about the extent of any effective treatment for the moment.

For the next three hours I walked into town knowing the skin damage was quickly mounting.

***

By the time I reached the eastern outskirts of Pamplona the plan quickly became finding the nearest albergue and getting off my feet. Tomorrow’s challenge would be an extended climb westward toward the famed peak of Alto de Perdón that I knew wouldn’t be friendly to fresh blisters. There’s really almost nothing you can do about it, but getting off your blistered feet helps your mind if nothing else.

Pamplona is the first major city you walk through on the Camino, and a bit of an adjustment after you’ve walked four days through open country. Crossing the Arga River I found myself in a beautiful park-like setting and turned left following directions of the first albergue sign I saw. The sign indicated the albergue as about a thousand meters down the street.

The structure looked more like an old 20th century home I’d see in my hometown, and I wasn’t altogether sure it was, in fact, an albergue. A man, who introduced himself as Heinrich was standing outside the door smoking, with a demeanor that conveyed he didn’t have a care in the world.

I returned the greeting and asked if this was an albergue.

“Yes, it certainly is, and I’d like to welcome you to Casa Paderborn. You are are first pilgrim of the day. I can see you are weary, so let’s get you comfortably situated,” he said.

You know how you connect with some people at first eye contact? Heinrich the German hospitalero was such a man to me.

Heinrich took my passport information, stamped my credencial, and spoke with me in such a way that made me feel right at home. I think it was the first time I’d actually felt “home” since leaving Arkansas.

He graciously grabbed my backpack, leading us upstairs, efficiently saving me extra steps and giving the nickel tour as we made our way toward the bunks. The old wooden floors creaked with every step and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say you could smell the history in the old house. Not an unpleasant odor at all – clean, yet just a bit musty, and familiar like an old 1909 house I bought many years ago.

Looking inside the albergue window at night.

Looking inside the albergue window at night.

I chose a bed for the night – one of about a dozen in the room, pulled up an old wooden chair, and moved quickly to the most immediate order of business. I pulled off my shoes and socks to evaluate the damage. There were now three blisters across two feet, and just a bit heartsick, I sat quietly, carefully considering the best course of action. It was bad news for tomorrow, and there was no way around it.

I inserted a clean needle leaving a small length of thread behind in each blister to prevent the buildup of more fluid through the night, and tried my best to forget about it, as much as the raw feeling expressed through each small step would permit. My feet really hurt. Shower stalls were just a few steps down the hall and I washed a few dirty clothes with shampoo while I showered. With only a few short hours of sunshine remaining there wasn’t enough time to dry clothes on the outside line, so I draped a shirt and some socks across an old-fashioned radiator used for heat, a practice that became common along the Way.

With chores for the day now complete I lay down on the bottom bunk and turned my thoughts to food. Famous for many things, not the least of which is its reputation for tapas, downtown Pamplona beckoned, yet the thought of more walking went against every grain of sound judgment I could imagine. The reality after eight hours of hiking, however, is the need for calories.

Heinrich’s directions to Pamplona’s old town sounded much further than I’d hoped to walk for food, but I was hungry, eager to both eat, and get the extra steps behind me so I could soon get horizontal in the bed once and for all. I slipped on my Crocs – maybe my single-best choice brought from home – and walked slowly in that direction, careful to minimize the foot friction as much as possible with each step.

Food Lesson #1: Tapas aren’t served all hours of the day, and, in fact, aren’t generally available until about 6 in the afternoon. It was 4:30, and as absolutely amazing as the city sights were, I had no desire to wander around for the next hour and a half. Walking back toward home for the night, I passed a quiet Greek cafe, gobbled down a gyro with papas fritas and a beer, and returned. It was no less than an extra three kilometers for my blistered feet.

Heinrich was outside smoking again, and I sat with him on a bench before walking back up the stairs. It’s difficult to explain, but was as if Heinrich somehow knew me at a soulful level. He had a pleasant, peaceful voice and an aura I can best describe as simply calming.

“I’ll be going back into town for rosary at the cathedral tonight and it would be wonderful if you would join me,” Heinrich said.

I was completely humbled this man would invite me along for something I could sense was so important to him, but the thought of walking, yet again, into town was almost unbearable.

“I’d love to go with you Heinrich,” my lips spoke before my brain released my honest thoughts. And we agreed to meet back there at 6:45 for the walk to Pamplona Cathedral. Slowly, I pushed my legs back upstairs toward the bed, remembering I came to Spain to experience life more abundantly. “You can lay around in a bed and complain how much you hurt another time,” I heard a voice say. “Nobody asked you to do this thing. Don’t be a crybaby.”

 

***

Pamplona Cathedral

Pamplona Cathedral

Aside from a funeral years earlier, I’d never once been to a Catholic church service. I was born, raised, and live, in the heart of the Southern Bible Belt have held “membership” in both Baptist and Methodist Churches. My religious views are simple and very conservative, and yet I’ve always been fascinated by the Catholic church. I didn’t even really know what Rosary was, but knew it would be both an educational and cultural experience to share with Heinrich.

The cathedral was ornamentally spectacular and massive. I remember thinking every student architect in the world should have required study in Europe. The attention to detail in European architecture takes my breath away, and is a far cry from the simple country church where I remember Sunday school and Easter egg hunts as a pre-schooler.

As a non-catholic I participated only as an obvious observer and no one seemed at odds with my presence. The structured ceremony and what seemed to me like matter-of-fact routine was completely different from my own church practices back home, yet there was something special, and I could tell, very serious about it for all the faithful. Heinrich seemed especially prayerful and devout, now oblivious to my presence as his guest. You can tell when someone has a special spirit, a clear, unfettered line of communication with God. Heinrich is such a man. I just took it all in, grateful for the Camino moment.

After the service, he invited me to go for tapas and drinks, but it was 8 p.m., and I respectfully declined. My feet hurt badly, tomorrow was not an easy day, and Heinrich understood. With the assurance I knew my way back to Casa Paderborn, we decided to part ways. He reminded me of a “Pilgrim’s Blessing” he would lead at 7:30 in the morning before departure, and I asked if he’d consider allowing me a video interview beforehand. We agreed on a 7 a.m., interview and I looked forward to probing an important topic with him. My reporter’s intuition told me Heinrich was the perfect interview to discuss “Camino Magic.”

***

 

With Heinrich and Hans-George before leaving for Alto de Perdón. I'd go on to lose about 30 pounds after that "fat" photo.

With Heinrich and Hans-George before leaving for Alto de Perdón. I’d go on to lose about 30 pounds after that “fat” photo.

Heinrich and his co-hospitalero, Hans-Georg, prepared a light breakfast for me and the two other pilgrims who’d stayed overnight. They poured coffee as I set up for our interview.

I turned on the GoPro and warmed them up with a few softball preliminary questions to raise their comfort level – I’ve interviewed thousands of people and learned how important this transitional process is many years ago. You don’t just jump in with the big questions right off the bat. You have to make people feel comfortable. You have to help them understand they can speak from their heart without your ensuing judgment. You must give them permission to be transparent. This process is an art form and it’s a beautiful thing when journalist know how to use it properly.

After we reached that point, I moved to where I wanted to go.

“Heinrich, so many pilgrims who experience the Way talk about Camino Magic and how special things happen here, that happen during no other times in their life,” I led him to the pivot. “I’m just not the kind of person who believes in the ‘magic’ of a place. It’s almost contrary to everything I know spiritually. What do you make of Camino Magic?”

And while I already knew Heinrich was a remarkably thoughtful man, I never expected the exquisite way he put his answer into words.

“Yes, Steve, I can understand why you would believe in such a way, but here is what you must understand and think about,” he went on. “The Camino is a magical place and this is why: For a brief window in time, five or six weeks, you have people from every corner of the world, and they are walking together in the same direction, for the same purpose, and toward the same end. There is unity and togetherness on the Camino that perhaps exists no where else in the world today, and especially in these times. It is magic, indeed, and this is something for you to think about as you make your way toward Santiago.”

In the tens of thousands of interview questions I’ve asked people over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever been more amazed by the insight of an answer.

The Camino de Santiago is an international convergence of cheerleaders. We cheer one another on, and receive the benefit of our internal longing to be cheered. Something here permits us to get to the very heart of our design.

-30-

Day 2: Up and Over

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(Blogger’s Note: This is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of my book draft #PilgrimStrong. It’s a partial account of the most difficult day on the Camino. Pilgrim stories about the Pyrenees are legendary.)

The higher I climbed, the colder it became, and the more harshly the wind blew. The gloves and toboggan came out, and I was thankful for the walking stick I purchased in St. Jean. Heavy moisture now made the rocky path fairly hazardous, and the stick must’ve saved me from a nasty fall a half-dozen times.

Adding to the concern, my only water bottle now had only a few swallows remaining and I was pretty sure there was zilch by way of stores or fountains between me and my destination. Three sips of water and six miles of hard walking ahead. Not good.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.59.37 PMA few kilometers short of the summit, a small, modestly constructed shack became visible through the fog. Signage indicated it was an emergency refuge for pilgrim protection in rapidly deteriorating weather. I decided to get off my feet and take a break inside. Maybe there’d even be a water faucet for a refill.

As I opened the door, and to my surprise, four other Argentinian pilgrims were inside with the same idea. It was a little self-assuring to know I wasn’t just imagining these conditions as difficult. There was no water inside, but in the first act of pilgrim kindness I received one young man gave me his half full bottle and said I should keep it. I’ve never been so thankful for a bottle of water.

We visited, sharing a few stories from the day, and in 10 minutes they moved on. I stayed inside another few moments to enjoy the absence of wind, and a rickety, rough wooden bench that felt like the finest sofa at the Ritz-Carlton. It was surreal that I was even in a place, and doing something where an emergency weather shelter was deemed necessary. As exhausted as I was, the thought was kind of cool.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 1.00.15 PMMoving on, I finally reached the summit where a propellered anemometer for wind speed measurement stood some 40 feet tall. The propeller’s movement was so rapid it sounded eerily like a jack hammer in the middle of nowhere. My thrill at reaching the summit was quickly diminished when I could see the rigorous decline that lie just ahead. At the summit, the Camino gives you about 50 yards of level path before it goes from straight up to straight down.

Just as my legs had spoken clearly to me on the beginning incline a few dozen yards outside St. Jean the day before, they spoke even louder now on the first, necessarily short, careful steps downward. It’s painful in a way that makes you close your eyes and grit your teeth, and it must be endured if you’re to move downward beyond the Pyrenees. With a top-heavy 24 pounds on your back, slippery rocks on a decline make for some bad footing. My stride was no more than six inches much of the way down. The stick was a Godsend.

Downward to Roncesvalles the Camino transitions into a mysteriously beautiful forest. As I continued the descent, the wind progressively subsided, and an even heavier still-hanging fog set in. At this point there’s almost no variation in the trail and so the fear of taking a wrong turn diminishes. Eight hours into the day’s trek now I began feeling weak.

Four o’clock passed, then five, then six. I was hungry and now genuinely concerned the kitchens would close before I could get a meal.

At 6:20 p.m., I approached a gate and passed over a small bridge that led into Roncesvalles – the first sign of civilization I’d seen in a long time. I walked straight in the nearest restaurant for a dinner reservation, checked in at the albergue, washed my face, and went back to eat.

I’d been on my feet an incredible 10 hours that day.

I slept off and on that night, but it just felt good to lie down and be off my feet. There were repeated dreams of scenarios from my life where there was no turning back.

By God’s grace, I’d ascended and descended the Pyrenees mountain range. Maybe I’d earn that pilgrim badge after all.

-30-

The Most Unpleasant Pilgrim in Weeks

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(Blogger’s Note: This is a sidebar exerpt from my book draft #PilgrimStrong, an account of my 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain on the Camino de Santiago.)

 

Tired. Hurting. Cold. Eventually, even pilgrims with the most agreeable tendencies can wear down and get a little out of sorts.

Day 30 was such a day for me.

With 100 kilometers to go from Sarria, our destination for the day was Portomarin. It was cool, and a heavy dampness hung in the air (yet again), but the winds were favorably calm. Severe tendinitis was a huge aggravation slowing my pace considerably, and I encouraged Naomi and Aida to go on without me knowing I’d catch up to them by the end of the day at our designated albergue. It was a point in the journey where I’d tell myself regularly, “…just keep moving.”

Just two kilometers short of Portomarin I passed through the tiny village of Vilachá, where a small, but well organized donativo stand with fresh fruits, cookies and two plastic chairs was more than I could resist for a moment’s rest before the day’s final steps. I really just wanted to sit, and that’s exactly what I did. I slipped off my pack and set my walking stick aside. The fruit looked good, but I was too tired and grumpy to eat, instead just taking an occasional sip from my water bottle.

It was quiet, and there was no indication of a soul anywhere around. Peaceful solitude.

You know how sometimes, two people inadvertently get off on the wrong foot from the first moment they meet? That’s what unfortunately happened here … and it was completely my fault, the combined result of exhaustion, pain, frustration, and very bad timing.

From nowhere, a thin woman with long hair, passed through a door into the common area where I sat, and she greeted me in Spanish, asking my primary language. “English,” I said, not really looking up.

“Bound for Portomarin?” she inquired, clearly indicating a heavy English accent.

“Yes, ma’am. I just need to sit here a moment,” I replied.

“Do you have a booking?” she asked, the accent seemingly heavier.

“A what?”

“A booking.”

I lifted my guidebook to show her. “Yes, I have a guidebook,” I responded, knowing she was trying to help, yet not wanting help. I didn’t realize I’d misunderstood.

“NO. A booking!” she raised her voice, frustrated with my misunderstanding. She was asking if I had a reservation ahead. I didn’t. I never made reservations, and just took things as they came. We were in a cultural misunderstanding with escalated tensions before I knew what happened.

I responded in a way that I shouldn’t have.

“No, I never make reservations ahead. I don’t plan things. I have friends ahead and I need to find them wherever they are. I’m very tired, hurting and just wanted to sit here a moment.” It’s that tone I get when I’ve already turned someone off. Very bad habit.

“Well, you’re not being very sociable, I can tell you that. I’m only trying to help, and I can save you some steps on those weary feet if you’d only be agreeable.”

“Am I really in this conversation?” I wondered to myself, head hung low.

It’s never good when you begin a sentence with “Lady…” As in, lady this, or lady that… The addressee never hears anything after that. I get it.

“Lady, I’m just sitting here, not really bothering anyone, but I’m going to move on down the path now and get out of your way. I’m sorry to be such a bother,” I said.

I threw my pack over one shoulder and scurried away, but before I could get too far, she got the best of me on our unfortunate exchange. She threw the last knockout punch.

“Well, you’re the most unpleasant pilgrim I’ve come across in weeks!” And she slammed the door bidding me good riddance.

And I just laughed my way off into the distance. She told me – and good.. And I pretty much deserved it.

-30-

 

 

 

 

 

Decency Personified

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I was mostly quiet yesterday. I simply couldn’t speak.

I’d pulled into the parking lot and was just about to run into the grocery store for a few errands when the text message dinged. I couldn’t process the words that Tommy Shewmaker died a few hours earlier. I didn’t even know Tommy was sick. I’m so ashamed. So broken.

It was as if I’d been punched in the heart. I sat there staring at the phone for 15 minutes as paralyzed as I can ever remember. At some point I walked into the grocery store, but couldn’t even remember why I was there.

He’d apparently been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer around Thanksgiving as I was nearing the end of the Camino de Santiago. And he died about 50 days later. It was that fast. I’m devastated, but this isn’t about me.

In a world I fail to comprehend less and less each day, Tommy was one of those men I admired purely because his head was screwed on so straight. His decency surpassed all standards. He was radically good.

Everyone loved Tommy.

We met in 2010 during my short employment at a tech company where I was completely out of my league – a right-brained creative word guy in the midst of a bunch of left-brained geniuses. Tommy was one of them, but he was different. He was so very normal. I mean it as the highest compliment.

He loved his family. Spoke about them all the time. They were his single highest priority. He told great stories and had a voice I always thought belonged on radio. He loved the ribs I’d occasionally cook for a company lunch. Loved sports. Worked out almost every day.  Tommy was a lot of things. But mostly, he was just so kind and decent and normal. I loved that he was so normal. Blessed that he was so kind.

My father passed away about seven months after my hire. Tommy and I were good acquaintances – not close, do-things-together kind of buddies – but friends. Yet, not necessarily at that time the kind of friends who went out of their way for one another. So when from nowhere he walked up to embrace me at my father’s funeral I couldn’t have been more genuinely taken aback. It was Saturday, and Tommy lived 25 miles away. He’d gone exceedingly out of his way to comfort me. He just showed up. It’s one of the kindest gestures I can ever remember, yet so much more than simple gesture. It was an action from Tommy’s heart. He mourned for me. It’s incomprehensible that I mourn him today.

God, he was such a decent man.

When I left the company we stayed in touch. Tommy loved travel.

About this time last year, he wrote me with several questions about Ecuador and the experiences I’ve had living there off and on the last three years. He said he was thinking about retirement, albeit a few years away. He spoke of the responsibilities he had to family, especially his grandchildren, and yet his sense of adventure longed for parts unknown. He wanted to explore Latin America as a possible outpost for retirement, and making the most of his retirement dollars. It thrilled me to speak with him about it, and share my ideas. I mostly just enjoyed that it was Tommy.

We should make a point to get together and talk about it over a cold beer, I wrote. Come to my house … I’ll break out the grill for those ribs you love, I said. He agreed we would make the appointment to catch up and discuss our mutual interest in so many things.

That sit-down never happened. I never saw Tommy again. He crossed my mind a few days ago. I should give him a call, or write him a note, I thought, before moving on to the next “important” thing. Tommy was dying and I didn’t even know it. Now he’s gone.

As I lay in bed last night I couldn’t help but think how selfish it was to be so sad that Tommy’s gone. I know where he is. I should celebrate what he’s now experiencing this very minute. I wish I could hear him speak of it in that crystal-clear baritone voice with that laugh so genuine to the pit of his gut. You could hear Tommy laugh across the building. His joy was effusive.

He was a passionate servant to his family. Purely decent. Humble. Real.

Can there be a greater compliment to a man? I think not.

Rise high in Glory, Tommy Boy. I miss you.

Thank you for being my friend.

-30-

 

2015: Rejecting Invictus

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I wanted to learn about myself this year, and so I did.

And I don’t regret the time I spent in doing so.

After 49 years and change you’d really think a man would know himself, and what he’s about, and have a certain comfort within his own skin. You’d think he’d be mostly focused on things like the ebb and flow of his 401k, the future prospect for grandchildren, and a better way to grow vine-ripe garden tomatoes next season.

You’d think he would have long since moved past such fundamental questions as:

“Who am I?”

“What do I believe?” … and

“What am I supposed to do with all that information?”

But such simple questions are more complex than they once were.  It’s because some unfortunate societal trends took foothold in 2015. I doubt they disappear soon.

First, the world’s thrown us a deceivingly effective curve ball that makes the pursuit of, and answer to, those questions more elusive than during any other time.

New capacities to shape ourselves with countless filters and applications make us nothing more than an edited, superficial, enhanced version of who we truly are.

Just the right angle makes us look 15 pounds lighter; a carefully maneuvered color filter creates a beautiful blue in your otherwise dull, grey eyes; and if you time it just right, that photo of you leaning up against the guy you haven’t seen any time before, or since, the company Christmas party can go a long way to make the guy you’re really interested in painfully jealous.

And tomorrow, you might as well throw up that Cancun photo from four years ago that proves you’re enjoying the time of your life as you actually sit alone on the couch, scoop the next spoonful of Bluebell, and switch the remote to the Lifetime channel. Yes, we’re a completely contrived manipulation of ourselves.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if it just stopped there with the physical and situational. The greater danger is how the new age of self-deceit goes beyond these arguably less important views from the exterior, and causes us to lose touch with our own reality – the very essence of who we are.

It’s a simple matter of accidental conditioning really. I can only spend so much time at a keyboard sharing with you my meaningless convictions about the social justice issues of our time (pick one: poverty, hunger, abortion, any issue of equality et al) before I begin actually begin believing the expression of that conviction somehow made a contribution to the greater good.

We’ve led ourselves to believe our expressions (completely void of any action whatsoever) are, in fact, action. And we desperately need to stop believing that lie.

Here’s a typical example (at right) you might see on any given day where someone has placed a sign in an elderly person’s lap with the idea that your “like,” whatever thatScreen Shot 2015-12-31 at 8.12.25 AM means, is going to brighten the elderly woman’s day. The truth is she doesn’t even know what a “like” is. The further truth is that a “like” isn’t anything at all. But we’ve somehow come to believe it’s actionable, and that our “like” has made a difference. And, thus, we move along quite self-satisfied with our good work.

This trend toward “inactionable action” isn’t the greatest emergency, but one of the greatest emergencies of our present day. I’m gradually working you toward the greatest emergency of our time, so read on, if you will.

It was an especially difficult revelation for me, because as a part of my own livelihood, I’ve spent years manipulating perceptions with words and images. Sometimes it was for good. Other times, it was a disastrous moral failure and with subsequent regret. Oftentimes, I fell prey to the belief of my own manipulated reality.

And then some time during the last 18 months (I can’t put my finger on exactly when) I grew exceedingly weary of lieing to myself, and began having some self-conversation with the real me. As a starting point, I acknowledged things as they really are, not as the polished creation I could so easily invent.

Acknowledgement #1: I’ve had some amazing experiences, and things in life I’d even consider great successes. And all those things are directly attributed to help from others. In 49 years I can’t think of a single significant thing I did, or experienced, void of support from someone else.

Acknowledgement #2: I’ve failed at certain things and they’re beyond my wildest, conceivable imagination of failure. Certain failures sometimes result in collateral damage. That’s not divine punishment, but rather the world in motion. You can deal with such things, if you face them for what they are, with humility, and without excuse. I call it repentance, because that’s what it really is.

Acknowledgement #3: There is absolutely no good that comes from living in a false reality of yourself. In fact, it’s the focus on myself, reality-based or not, that’s my worst distraction and enemy.

Acknowledgement #4: I am not, as William Ernest Henley so famously wrote in the poem, Invictus, “…the master of my fate” nor “…the captain of my soul.”

These things were the building block in the truthful search for myself in 2015.

***

To aid the mental/soulful processing of these acknowledgements, and to seek further understanding, I did certain things with intention such as:

1. Spent a fair amount of time alone.

2. Engaged in a lot of physical labor.

3. Spent nearly 13 weeks traveling, nine of which were outside the United States.

4. Went on pilgrimage, and walked a very long way in a fair amount of discomfort.

5. Read the Bible more than at any other time during my life.

6. Dumped my CNN addiction cold turkey.

7. Spent a lot of time with people who view the world differently than me.

8. Avoided every conceivable big decision/idea that crossed my mind.

***

In the course of these things, this is what I learned about myself, and this time in my life:

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1. Life is hopelessly unnavigable in the undefined boundaries of subjective truth.

2. Most of the world now prefers undefined boundaries of subjective truth. This, as mentioned above, is the greatest emergency of our time. You might simply call it, chaos.

3. The expression of #1 makes causes people (many of whom I consider close friends) to view me as intolerant, judgmental, bigoted, sexist. Those things aren’t true, but they’re the reality of what many will believe.

4. In the New World of Tolerance, many important convictions I hold are not tolerated.

5. I’m more of who I truly am than I’ve ever been before.

6. I am broken, just as we all are broken. Yet, I am strong.

7. A pilgrim’s walk never ends. There’s a lot more to learn. I’m willing to keep walking.

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The Absolute Worst Trends of 2015

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… in no particular order…

1. The increasingly casual remark of putting others in our “thoughts and prayers” as an expression to pretend we care.

2. Sending “good vibes” to one another. What’s a vibe? How do you send it? And how do I receive it? Does it show up on my utility bill? Those words literally make me cringe.

3. An evolving, growing shift from a primary focus to love and have genuine concern for other people, to a love for, fascination with, and almost worship of,  animals. There’s some deep, disturbing, profound sociology/psychology there.

4. Mainstream media’s (particularly cable broadcast news’) evolution from at least pretending that it still seeks to inform you, to its complete disregard for that idea, and blatantly acknowledging it cares only to entertain, divide and create conflict between you and your fellow man so that it may perpetuate its own interests at any cost.

“SuperPacs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS.” ~ CBS Corporation CEO Les Moonves.

5. The growing notion that somehow “the universe” will provide all our needs if we’ll just be open to that idea, and listen to it.

6. The crystal clear evidence that so very many young adults in their 20s and 30s have absolutely no idea who they are, or where they’re going because they were raised by a generation of parents in their 40s and 50s who had no idea what they were doing.

7. The idea that “religious liberty” somehow also means all things can be true.

8. “Relevant Truth,” the very idea of which, conflicts itself.

9. The United States’ growing isolationist philosophy based in fear, and propitiated by those most likely to lead the country after the next election cycle.

10. For that matter, fear-based everything.

11. The manner in which we’ve falsely come to believe we’re actively making a difference by expressing our convictions on social media. It’s so serious, most of us no longer even know who we really are.

12. The unnecessary devaluation, and outright ridicule of Christianity as vehicle to legitimate religious liberty for other beliefs.

13. The degree to which we’ve allowed symbolism to heighten our convictions, most of which don’t matter anyway if all you’re going to do is run your mouth about it. See #4 above.

14. Failure to do something (anything) and have civil conversations that can produce real results to keep innocent people from being murdered by the masses in the United States.

15. Bruce Jenner, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, The Duggars, Barack Obama, CNN, FOX News, Starbucks cups, Good Morning America, Disney and more. But moreover, our fascination with each of them.

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