From Russia with Love

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Note:     Because of the work I’m doing right now, Siberia is very much on my mind; in particular, the ride across by rail my son and I traveled in 2013. I wrote this letter in my journal at the airport in Vladivostok almost four years ago. I just found it while piecing together material from those journals for a book. You know, from the outside, it is easy to judge what life is like for someone else, what he or she is going through and the decisions they make, especially the bad ones. Unfortunately, no one anymore—not even people we’re close to—bothers to ask directly how things are, if everything is okay. I have never had that issue with Michael, and I’m deeply appreciative of that rare character trait in him.

That was on my mind at five in the morning at the airport in far eastern Russia drinking coffee and writing:

Dear Michael,

When you were born, the Soviet Union had just collapsed, Boris Yeltsin was the president of Russia trying to keep his newborn nation alive, and everyone in St. Petersburg and in Moscow was still trying to figure out what to do. The powers-that-be were people not used to asking for help from anyone. Mistakes were common.

That was me in ‘93 when you came into this world. Like all new fathers, I made decisions based on what I needed to know to keep you alive, followed by decisions based on what I remembered from growing up or from watching other young fathers. I don’t recall asking anyone for help but I clearly remember making many mistakes. And the hardest part of parenthood is knowing when to be there for you and when to back off. If I’ve mixed them up from time to time, forgive me.

Yet here we are at the end of one of the greatest journeys in modern travel. The irony is most fathers of twenty-year-old’s only go to the train station to wave goodbye, not to embark on a month-long adventure. Maybe you’d have rather done this alone; maybe with someone your own age. I’m certain either of those is most likely preferable to traveling with your father, but we find ourselves here nonetheless. Consider it your gift to me; my heart is full.

We’ve covered thousands of miles in twenty years. I was thinking last night about the Brio train set we gave you for Christmas when you were just two or three. We spent endless hours on the floor creating scenarios, traveling across the country, over mountains and even oceans. You learned geography; I learned patience. You learned how to turn a few simple wooden trains into a universe; I learned how expensive toys can be.

During your youth you and I did so much together, and luckily for me as the years passed and you grew older, that didn’t change. And now after traveling across Europe and Asia, I can’t imagine taking the journey with anyone else. I don’t think many fathers and sons stay as close as we have all these years later. Your grandfather and I got along fine but the roles were written differently in the sixties and seventies than the contemporary take. While I’m sure there are more than a few fathers and sons these days who have full-blown, knock down, drag-out fights which leave scars too deep to heal, the cause of most conflict is seemingly subtle. And unlike the shaky lines of communication between your grandfather’s generation and mine, the lines of communication between mine and yours is almost always open.

And now we’ve disembarked, left the final station, spent some time in the city, and are ready to return home to head toward whatever’s next. Spain perhaps. We shall see. In the meantime I need you to do something for me: I need you to forgive me for growing older, for someday losing the energy I’ve had until now.  As I write this we’re still at the airport in Vladivostok. You’re looking at maps of Kamchatka planning to come back and possibly do on your own what to this point we did together. I’m looking out at the early morning light revealing itself over the Sea of Japan. At what point you will actually read this is a mystery to me since I’m not sure if I’ll even copy it out of my journals and onto a screen to print and mail. If I do it certainly won’t be anytime soon. Between now and then who is to say what will happen—to me, to you, to us. We’ve done okay together though; we understand each other and maybe that is all a father can ask for. It is probably well more than a son can ever expect. So I believe we’ve done okay so far, you and me.

To use the metaphor of this journey just one more time—I don’t know what’s ahead. At some point we will split off and follow separate tracks. I am lucky we stayed on the same ride as long as we have. Thank you for that. I’m certain your urge to take off has been strong. If our relationship has any scars at all, they are nearly unrecognizable, subtle, mysterious; I think we have come out of these two decades mostly unblemished. But to be honest, I do not know and maybe I never will know just how badly I screwed up as a father. Should I have pushed you out on your own sooner? Should I have encouraged you toward different paths? Maybe I said too much.  I know every father wonders how he could have done things differently, and the best we can hope for is we did the best we could.

But before this trite little letter becomes so predictable you throw it out, you need to know how much like your grandfather you have turned out to be. Maybe that is why I allowed you so much room through the years to make up your own mind on so many issues; because you have the same quiet, contemplative manner. I heard once that when a father dies it is the greatest loss of security a son will ever know. I suppose that only is true if the father was a protector to begin with. I certainly have tried to be, just as I always tried to be a good son. I think that if we pay attention to what we would have done differently as sons, maybe we become better fathers. I don’t know.

Maybe in some inconceivable time from now when you’re well beyond my years and I’m long gone, perhaps you’ll look back to this journey and remember how we laughed so long together, discovered so much of the world together. Maybe, someday, you’ll be sitting somewhere and someone—perhaps a grandson of your own or maybe just two strangers on some bench—will be talking about Siberia or fathers and sons or sunsets on a summer night, and you’ll think of me. If you do, I hope you’ll smile and remember the time when we were both so alive, and we walked the hills near Lake Baikal. I hope you’ll remember when we joined our Russian friends in the dining car for drinks and music, and time didn’t pass us by as much as we left it behind.

Mostly, I hope you will recall how we stood alone together between the cars, you playing harmonica and me watching the passing landscape of birch trees and green fields, just you and me, enjoying this random trip through time.

Love,

Dad

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Escape

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I’m not indifferent to our need to remain up to date on what’s going on in the world, but sometimes it can be a bit overbearing and I feel like the divisiveness is going to swallow me up.

When I listen to the anger, the repulsive name-calling, the indignant attitudes, the horrific threats, the unsubstantiated accusations, the dangerous proposals, the indifference to human life, the lack of concern for consequences, the undermining gossip, the pathetic finger-pointing, I wonder if these people have ever thought with any depth at all about humanity, felt the breezes of compassion, or caressed the soft promise of possibility, felt their eyes well up when a cello comes in at just the right moment.

We have leaders who have never walked through nature cast votes to destroy the environment. We have representatives who have never met people from Mexico who want to build a wall. We have organizations making a mockery of others’ inalienable right to life when they fight tooth and nail for weapons built for the sole purpose of ripping holes through the bodies of as many people as possible.

This nation has misplaced its humanity. It has lost its sense of companionship. It has torn apart any remnant of unity that still existed. Our school system is failing, our environment is losing the battle against population growth, agriculture is losing to major corporations like Monsanto, small businesses are losing to conglomerates, and the post-911 generation is losing to its own lack of experience with hope, its lack of practice in compassion.

In my relatively small and insignificant world, taking a moment to breathe makes all the difference. Sometimes things spiral away from me and I’m not smart enough to understand it all. I don’t think many people are, though they might think differently, which only infuriates my already strained sense of peace.

So no wonder sometimes I like to escape, walk along the bay and understand again that no one has yet figured out how to steal the sunrise. And if there are soft breezes coming off the water and the occasional hawk happens by, I’ll put on some Nick Drake and lose myself in my own blissful ignorance. He’ll sing “and go play the game that you learnt from the morning” and in my mind I’ll be walking again in Spain, away from the deteriorating world.

Right now I’m at my desk working on chapter 18 of the Siberian book and listening to Drake. What a talent; his haunting voice and lyrics along with such subtle guitar work simply fill my soul with such peace; which is ironic since much of his work is filled with sorrow, as was he quite sorrowful until his youthful death. His music has walked me through some fire that’s for sure. I wish I could tell him, write him, but no. Other musicians’ music has done the same—Chapin, Denver, Fogelberg—and I can’t contact a single one to thank them for the perspective, for the right words at the right time—every one of them gone too soon. As for the music, I know most people know what I’m talking about no matter what artist works. It’s just that sometimes we need someone else to say the right thing, someone who values the romance in life and can take us, albeit briefly, somewhere else.

Most people understand this, but not all.

And right now I’m listening to Drake and working on chapter 18 and outside in an oak tree a mother and baby hawk are keeping close to their nest. I’m sure Mom’s the reason for the dove feathers near the birdbath. Near one of the crepe myrtle trees another dove is looking for seed, and I know the hawk sees her. It must be hard sometimes for the dove to survive.

I can hear the baby but Mom is on a different branch keeping one eye on the dove and the other on the young hawk as baby moves back and forth from branch to nest to a different branch to the nest again. Hawks seem to be above it all, disconnected to any concerns. Between the soft breeze coming in the screen, the small calls of the hawk, and Nick Drake’s melodic voice calling “A day once dawned, and it was beautiful,” I’m very much at peace. Then add to that how I’m now somewhere east of Irkutsk in a dining car drinking Baltika Beer and laughing with my son and some new friends. It is what I love about writing; I can at any time come to my desk and slide through that rabbit hole into wherever I want to go again. It seems more than ever we all need some escape, some perspective.

For me that escape is the writing, maybe the music.

Or the hawks; there’s something about the hawks.

 

 

A Tale of Two Books

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It really can be a wilderness, sitting at my desk looking out onto the porch roof where two squirrels are chasing each other. I’m working on a book about Siberia. More specifically, it is about riding the Trans Siberian Rail from St Petersburg to Vladivostok with my son, Michael.

A friend of mine in Arizona just published a very limited edition of my book about the Camino de Santiago. Out of the Way is the same length as my book Penance—very short—and the same form, actually. The reason I went with an edition with only 250 copies and don’t plan on going further than that is simple: I had nothing more to say. Plus, there are hundreds of books and blogs and short films about the Camino. But I had published several pieces about the Camino in various magazines, including two national publications, and they received a lot of positive response. Nothing I write about the pilgrimage will ever reflect the experience, though I suppose I’ll keep trying.

But the Siberian work is different. More specifically it is about fathers and sons, about figuring out what we can keep with us as we move forward. Out of the Way is about 60 pages, the manuscript for the Siberian book is already around 200 pages, and that is after months of editing. It will flip flop for some time still, getting longer and then edited down, longer again and then shorter. Michael points out pretty soon it will be longer than all my other books combined.

But that’s because it is about Siberia. More specifically, it is about history and migration and the disconnection that still exists in some remote areas of the world. Siberia is wild and natural and vast and unlike any other region. Not much has been written about in the popular-culture arena. One of the best is Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, which manages to capture the experience perfectly, but it remains focused on the people and the history without reaching out of itself. David Green’s fine work, Midnight in Siberia is also an excellent book for understanding the experience on the rail, and since NPR fans know his voice so well it is easy to read the book and hear David’s voice at the same time.

But other than those and some Colin Thurbon books about Russia and Siberia in general, there is little else out there.

So I decided to put it together, this book about Siberia; more specifically about exiles and dissidents, about what we leave behind, about the need to be direct with others and oneself instead of passing judgement and deciding without facts, without at the very least asking. It is about hesitating while at the same time jumping off the edge of the world. Of the fourteen sections of the book completed so far, eleven have been published in one form or another in various journals, but the book ties them together.

Which brings me back to Spain, to the Camino and sixty pages.

Two books occupying my mind at the same time is interesting. It really is like having children. One of them needs more attention than the other, more help, more of my resources—for whatever reason—and I need to pay attention to it. But, as van Gogh eloquently wrote, “Art is jealous; she will not let us choose ourselves over her.” That’s so true. These books are siblings, and I want them to get along, especially when one doesn’t understand why I need to pay extra attention to the other. So as it is, they have different needs, and it is time to think about Siberia.

Siberia is an intellectual project; it also has much of my heart since it is framed in letters to my late father, but at its core it is about Siberia. More specifically, it is about the delicate balance between focusing on “now” and focusing on “what’s next.” This work comes out of the journalist in me.

But Out of the Way, which isn’t a story as much as it is a reflection about faith, comes very much from my heart. And I discovered something interesting in these two projects. In the past I have the normal problems writers have; whatever I’ve done is not enough, needs to be expanded, deepened, approached from another angle. Reworking means filling in and trimming down, as I’m doing now with the book about Siberia, which is really about learning to find our way home.

But with Spain everything I wrote always already seemed too much, like I was telling someone else’s secret. I think that’s because it is not a “project,” it is who I am, and writing about it became too personal. I’ll never go back to Siberia. But the Camino beckons every single day, especially lately when I’m finding less and less reason to stay.

A lot has changed in the past year in every single aspect of my life and I sometimes have trouble understanding it all, and I know for certain people I’ve been close to don’t understand and for whatever reason don’t bother to ask. But in Spain I feel my life is completely exposed and everyone there understands each other, like two lovers who can finish each other’s thoughts.

So I’m very pleased Out of the Way is on its own now and I can only pray people find a little of what I was trying to do. But to be completely honest, I wrote it for me; that book is for me.

The two squirrels outside my window on the porch roof ran off. I need to grade papers, and I want to play golf with my brother. I want to go to Starbucks with my sister, take pictures with my son. I want to wander aimlessly amidst the trees running from here to the Rappahannock, and then head out on the water and disappear for awhile. I want to call my mother and thank her, and stop and leave flowers at my father’s headstone. I want to drive west, sail south, and find out the least of my days is still an amazing grace.

Instead, I’m going to sit at this desk and expand my book about Siberia, which, ironically, is also about pilgrimage. I’ll edit and deepen until it finds its way to the publisher.

Unless I go for a walk. I might go for a walk.

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When Michael was three he climbed on some bars at a park when his hand slipped and he slammed his head. I grabbed him and held him close until my friend Brian pointed out that my light-blue t-shirt was dark red, all of it. A bolt had penetrated Michael’s skull just above his right eye.

Brian drove us in my jeep to the hospital just a few miles away, but before we had gone very far Michael’s cries changed from the pain in his head to the fact we were leaving the park. At the ER, he walked about holding a cloth to his skull asking everyone what they were in there for while I ate a cookie to bring my blood sugar back up. On the way home after stitches for him and resuscitation for me, he said, “That was fun. Can we stop at the park on the way home?” I told him I didn’t feel well.

Two years later he ran in circles through his grandmother’s house yelling, “Sir Michael the Knight is chasing the dragon! Sir Michael the Knight is going to catch the dragon!! Sir Michael the Knight is going to…” and he ran full speed into the dining room table, clipping his left shoulder so that his legs came completely out and he slammed to the floor. I jumped up from my chair to hear him say, “Sir Michael the Knight hurts himself really bad.” Then he got up and kept running.

He’s still running. Tomorrow he turns twenty-five-years old.

I’m grateful for some obvious events in our lives which have allowed us to spend time together; training across Siberia and walking across Spain to name a few. But more than the grand events are the day to day activities. Over the past twenty years or so we’ve shared thousands of sunsets at the river near our home. It is routine to stand at the water’s edge, my camera pointed toward the clouds, his toward the water. His images of the colors and the beauty of the river surface make him one of the finest artists I’ve known. Sunrises, too, don’t escape us. One of us will be up early and see if the pre-dawn sky warrants waking the other, and if so a bang on the wall is followed by a call of “Okay, coming,” which is followed methodically by a quick stop for coffee, and then both of us wandering the sand at the bay waiting for just the right moment, zooming in on the osprey nests or gulls following the fishing boats. By the time the rest of the village is waking up, we’re heading home.

I didn’t want to spend any time here bragging about my son, so I’ll avoid praising his abstract photography, including one piece which was featured in a show in the Louvre, and I’ll refrain from talking about his work at the library and his volunteering as an ambulance driver; and no one would mind but I’ll not write here about his amazing book, “Across the Wild Land,” featuring a few hundred photographs from Siberia. No, there is no need to spend time writing about any of that.

Instead I’ll write quite proudly about how I have been blessed to have spent the better part of two and a half decades hanging out with my son. Not many fathers have that privilege, and I’ve collected more than a few stories at his expense. Like the drunken chess games on the railway in Russia, or the walking history-guide he became through all the villages in Spain.

I’m most proud of him, however, for a basic, rare human trait he possesses that I wish I had even the smallest portion of: he is the kindest person I’ve ever known. Michael has had a most unconventional life and through it all—I write this as an observer, not as his father—he has never complained about one thing, he has never spoken negatively about a single person. Ever.

I wish I were more like him.

We all have stories about our kids—funny ones, or ones which expose their intelligence or cleverness. Really, we all do. So here’s one of mine:

When he was a toddler he came to work with me a lot, and we both enjoyed it. When I had to teach, however, he would spend time with colleagues. For a while he loved checking books in and out of the library with “Mrs. Mac”; ironic really since he again works at times in a library. Other days he would sit in class while I taught. Once, however, another professor, the late Pat Naulty, offered to let him sit at her desk in her office and make designs with the “paint” program on her computer. My class was across the hall so I agreed. When I came out an hour and a half later, I couldn’t get to the door because of the crowd of people around. And when I worked my way through I heard his small voice finishing a lecture with, “…no no that would have been the Triassic Period, much earlier. I’ll cover that in a minute. Oh, hi Daddy. Don’t you have to teach again?”

What is most amazing to me about my son, however, is how much he is exactly like my father. The two of them spent a lot of time together over the first twenty-three years of Michael’s life, and that included walking through the mall, countless lunches, and dozens of rounds of golf. The similarities in their personalities are obvious: immeasurably kind, mostly quiet, deeply committed to family, and a sharp sense of humor.

These twenty-five years have been the greatest gift any father would dream of, and nothing I have ever written comes close to capturing the joy it has been to be his father. So instead, this:

In his first few years I would sing him to sleep and the song I sang most was “Return to Pooh Corner” by Kenny Loggins; it is an updated version of “House at Pooh Corner.” One day when driving somewhere he looked tired so I started to sing it to him, when from the car seat in the back of the jeep I heard him sing with me, the entire song, not missing a word or a note…

It’s hard to explain how a few precious things

Seem to follow throughout all our lives

After all’s said and done I’m watching my son

Sleeping there with my bear by his side.

So I tucked him in, kissed him, and as I was going

I swear that old bear whispered, “Boy, welcome home.”

 

Happy Birthday Son.

Buen Camino.

I love you.

–Dad

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My Parents’ Desk

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When I was in fourth grade I wrote a book. It was called “Flight” and was about two boys who built a spaceship and traveled through the Milky Way. They talked about what they saw along the way and seemed in no worry for want—if they got hungry they had plenty of Milky Ways and Mars bars to eat, and one of the two had stuffed his pockets with “Now and Laters” for that long stretch between Mars and Jupiter. I write all this in past tense since I have no idea what happened to it. I can picture the construction paper cover, and I typed it on a small manual typewriter I also used to write letters to my friend Charlie in the old neighborhood.

We had just moved to a new area surrounded by the Great South Bay and the Connetquot River. We had also just watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and I was obsessed with space travel. I had a brown jacket with patches on it and memorized all the astronauts and their flight assignments. All of it. I was also enthralled by writing. So naturally, I wrote about space travel.

My mother made me a small desk from a folding tray with a placemat on it, and I used it in the den and would carry it to my room, my first room I had without my brother, so I was able to leave my “manuscript” out all the time. This was fourth grade and I had pneumonia so missed a chunk of school, which allowed plenty of writing time. That small folding-tray table desk got a lot of use.

I also typed a poem about Christmas, inspired by C. Clement Moore. I don’t have that anymore either, but I still remember some of it:

Christmas is coming, it’s coming soon

But not that soon since it’s only June

So I’ll sit here and watch the moon

With all my Christmas plans in ruins.

Kind of dark. I was ten. And I recall the “s” at the end of ruin bothered me. But, man, I wrote it at my own desk. How cool was that? 

I’m fifty-seven-years old and a writer now (thanks Tim O. for the line), and I’m sitting in my new home office, which is an old desk on a throw rug on the wood floor in the front half of my bedroom. I’m looking out at acres of oak trees with bare branches. The area is surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay in one direction and the Rappahannock River in another. A little while ago a hawk was on one of the branches, no doubt looking down and sizing up the doves and cardinals at the feeders and frozen birdbaths on the front lawn. It is absolutely peaceful here with osprey and deer. The closest town is four miles to the west and even that is little more than a bank, a convenience store, a hardware store, and a vet. The busiest of them all is the vet, not just for dogs and cats but the myriad farm animals nearby, particularly horses. Behind me about a thousand yards is the Fountain Green Farm which looks like something out of a movie, or at the least something from western Kentucky. I know nothing of horses despite having more of them as neighbors than I do people. But I know Alice Walker was right when she wrote, “Horses make a landscape look more beautiful.”

I want to spend more time inside now at this desk, which is new to me, though not unfamiliar as it belonged to my parents since the mid-seventies. They purchased it when we moved to a new house. And now it is mine, and I’m behind it looking out at the oaks; scatterings of notes cover the mahogany desktop.

I feel like this will be a good working spot. In fact, ironically, the project I’m in the middle of and which will be the first for me to work on here is a book about traveling in Siberia, structured as a series of letters to my father. It’s as if I should be able to open the bottom left drawer and move something such as a stapler or an old folder only to find a stack of letters from me to him, bound by a string, postmarked Vladivostok. But the drawers are empty.

It is impossible to predict where the best place to write might be. The journals these letters come from I wrote at a booth in the dining car crossing Russia. The car was mostly empty so I was always able to sit with my papers spread about, a cup of tea, or, later in the morning, a beer or two, and work away while outside the glass-plate window birch forests dominated the hemisphere. Years before that I once did a great deal of writing in a bar, and these days for the most part I work well in a cinderblock office. I have a friend who writes poetry in coffeeshops or museums, and another who writes in her “writing room” looking out at the quaint houses on the beautiful street in her small town.

For me, the writing occurs when I walk, or when I’m driving, and disjointed, seemingly irrelevant events slam together in my mind. I might have spent time with family, and then went for a walk along the bay, and later had something to eat with a friend, and somewhere in the following days my caffeinated mind wanders between these events, amazed at the connections between stories of ancestry followed by the persistent pounding of waves, followed by the complete absorption in the enjoyment of the passing of time. And as the hours pass the connections become more obvious, the balance between childhood memories shared with my siblings now that we’re all AARP members, and how time can often tease us with occasional flutters in our linear perception. Between old stories of younger days and the eternal ebb and flow of tides as I walk on the beach, and the suspension of all measure when talking to a friend, the writing begins, the mostly futile attempts to capture something of this passing. Maybe I’ll have more luck at this desk.

I don’t ever remember seeing my father or mother sit at this desk. In fact, despite the passing of more than forty years with it in the family, I might just be the first person to actually sit at it and do work. It had always been primarily aesthetic by location and, as a practicality, a storage area for their important papers and checkbooks. And I am positive no computer has ever been atop it as mine is now. Everything is repurposed eventually. Even us.

I’m happy with my new work area, though I still will do most of my editing at the oyster shack or the café by the bay. I added this to my possessions at the same time I’m getting rid of so many, many things. I’m selling most of my art, giving away parts of my past, and thinning out my souvenirs. I’m sure part of it is my post-pilgrimage epiphany that our most precious possessions are the moments spent along the way; the backyard games on the Island with my brother and sister, the dinners with my parents, laughing and crying with friends at college, and of course, the love and loss and heartaches along the way since. I don’t need souvenirs of Tuesday nights when Dad and I drank Scotch, or early morning conversations with my mom at the breakfast table. Nor do I need “things” from the past two and a half decades—the hours of evening conversations with my son, our shared cabin on a train to the other side of the world, and our month-long journey side by side on the Camino. Come on, what possible souvenir comes close? Oh, I have pictures of all these times, of course, and I cherish them and look at them often. But I have never been able to find a trinket worth keeping.  

But that’s not entirely accurate.

I sit at this desk as I have sat at others before it, and write stories about the journey. And these small stories, while irrelevant to others, are my possessions. Like some glance at the curio cabinet, I sit at this desk and open a file and write about memories. Like how Dad and I used to watch the Super Bowl together every year at his house. We’d have wings and shrimp my mother would put out, and drink beer—a side-step from the Scotch since football calls for beer—and talk about the players and the missed opportunities. We laughed at commercials but never watched the half-time show. Dad didn’t care and I would rather talk to him. He would have rooted for the Eagles. He would have been happy this year.

And in the bottom right drawer of this desk which I’ll probably always refer to as “my parents’ desk” are copies of the last edits of my work about Spain, where Michael and I both wrote in our journals, almost always in a pub.

Souvenirs fall short of experience. We know that. Words come closer but they remain little more than some form of shorthand to remind us of the complete narrative. Even pictures for all their emotional tugs remain stagnant, moments more than memories. No, the only true way to enjoy the memories is to make them, to push away from my parents’ desk and go canoeing with my son, or have dinner with my mom and siblings when they’re in town. Pie with Jack. Lunch with Tim. Writing comes close, for me anyway, like writing music might for my friends Jonmark or Doug, or painting might for Mikel.

But the arts are irrelevant without life. Life must come first. Living must come first. Many years ago when Facebook was new my niece Erin updated her status to read: “I’m too busy out living my life to post about it on Facebook.” I never forgot that. I’m grateful to sit at my parents’ desk to do my writing, but their much more treasured gift to me was my desire to live life to begin with, to have something to write about.

But I do enjoy coming up to sit down and gather my thoughts, put on some old Jackson Browne, and tie together seemingly irrelevant happenings, sometimes discovering the serendipity in the world. And later in the evening my son will call up and ask if I want to join him outside to use the telescope and gaze at constellations out across the bay, another of our normal routines.  So I’ll save some document, push away from the desk, head outside and find Mars above the horizon, and remember some story somewhere about two young boys traveling through the Milky Way.

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My Senior Moment

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I spoke to a group of senior citizens about the Camino de Santiago. About eighty people ranging in age from mid-sixties to late eighties attended the slide show/lecture. I read excepts from my new book, talked about the nuts and bolts of walking the pilgrimage, and told stories which had us all talking and laughing. It was a great time, a really fine time.

Their questions surprised me. Not because they asked about experiences or meaning or significance or the people, though they did and I was sorry Michael wasn’t there to help answer some from his perspective; no, they asked about cost, time, sleeping conditions, safety, difficulty.

They wanted to know how to do it. A large portion of these mostly septuagenarians came to my lecture because they want to walk the Camino.

I told them about two men we met several times. They were from Germany and had already walked 2800 kilometers by the time we shared dinner at an albergue near Pamplona; both were about seventy-years-old. We spent the afternoon and evening drinking wine from clay pitchers and discussing the blisters on our feet. One of them introduced me to German sandals, noting he never had blisters. The other talked about their lack of concern for the distance covered each day.

I told my audience at the university about the lack of need to carry much; that the albergues have laundry facilities, comfortable beds, delicious food, and plenty of coffee. I mentioned if they wished to jump a difficult section of the Camino, they just had to hop on a bus for two hours and cut out about six or seven days of walking.

It turned into a riot, a gang of rambunctious, excited potential travelers no longer raising their hands or waiting for me to finish my response to other questions, but all calling out inquiries, talking to each other, laughing, making plans of when, and encouraging each other to join each other. They talked about Emilio Estevez’s movie, The Way, and how Martin Sheen was about their age, ignoring the fact he didn’t actually walk the Camino. I pointed that out and we laughed, but then one man asked, “But could he?”

It was rhetorical. Clearly this crowd knew about pilgrimage. They already decided he could and they could and they would and, perhaps most importantly, they should. They absolutely should. I saw more life, more excitement, more potential, and more determination in that room then I ever have in teaching twenty-year-olds the same information.

At some point we understand we don’t need to worry about as much as we thought; at some point we look back and see we tried to carry too much baggage. Usually, however, that realization doesn’t happen in our twenties.

But it happens. And for this group of retired men and women, some of them retired more than twenty years—longer than the life span of my average-aged student—they don’t see a finish line. They pulled out their phones and looked up the brand of sandals, costs of flights, regulations on carrying walking sticks on flights. One woman looked up books about learning Spanish. She is in her early eighties.

I love when we discover our mission here on earth isn’t complete as long as we are alive. Some people make excuses. Some make plans.

One woman asked me to point out if a trip like this is a realistic possibility. I pointed out they’d spend more in a week in Disneyland than a month on the Camino. I pointed out if they can walk four or five miles a day, they can at the very least do a portion of the Camino for a week or two, which is how must pilgrims plan anyway—few people have the time to do the whole journey in one shot. I pointed out they can skip the difficult parts, that it isn’t a competition or challenge.

Then I left.

I didn’t tell them about the memorial markers.

People have died along the way. Some travel there aware that their lives were at the end and they wanted their last steps to be on the sacred grounds along the Camino, dying in the footsteps of saints. Others didn’t anticipate the strain possible by not pacing themselves, or weren’t aware to begin with of a heart condition. Spain can be very uphill. I didn’t mention the possibility of dying along the Way because no one asked, and no one asked because by the time we reach that part of life we are quite aware of the rapidly approaching end of it all; no one needs to remind them they could die. In fact, it is because death is relatively imminent to begin with that they came to the meeting, asked the questions, and are making plans. They can’t control when the journey will end, but they all prefer to walk toward it, even if ever-so-slowly, than to sit still and wait for the end to come to them.

I walked to my car and wondered how I’ll handle being in a group like that when I’m their age, which is just a quick two decades from now. Less. Will I be thrusting my hand in the air, or, more likely, calling out questions without filters? Will I be taking notes, wondering how I can make some adventure with some new friends, saying, “yes” to invitations to try something new when so old? Then I thought how hopefully I’ll never go to one of those meetings. Hopefully, I’ll already be out there, further along this pilgrimage I’m on. Slower for certain, but moving forward.

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