Reflections on a Half Camino – Absolute Truths – Part 1

September 14, 2013

It’s now been seventeen days since I returned home from Spain. During that time I’ve tried to hang onto my experience as the the usual bombardment of modern culture continues unabated. My focus has been on relaxation characterized by the avoidance of scheduled activity.

During this 17-day period, I’ve relaxed at home for a few days, spent the long Labor Day weekend on Balboa Island, launched our son into the 11th grade and took four days to go fishing in the Sierra mountains. After that, a few days focused on our oldest son’s upcoming wedding and then back to Balboa Island where I now attempt to share my oft-promised deep thoughts about my experience traveling around the world in 30 days.

Absolute Truth #1 – Everything you need in life can be carried on your back

Or in your heart. Or in your head.

This thought has been shared by many folks before me and I think is common to almost all Camino experiences. The accumulation of “stuff” over time is not the way to happiness, it is an obstacle to happiness. I actually prefer to use the word contentment because it connotes a peaceful acceptance of wherever and whatever you are in life right now. It’s the feeling that you have enough, you do enough and you are enough.

Being an avid backpacker for many years, I’ve learned this lesson slowly. In the early days, I carried a lot of extra equipment “just in case” and tolerated the extra burden because I was a younger man. As I’ve aged, I’ve cut my pack weight slowly but steadily. It’s the only thing that has allowed me to continue my trips.

The Camino experience magnified what I learned backpacking. Instead of 30 lbs. you’re carrying 15 lbs. You can do this, of course, because more of what you need is provided along the way by others. Food and shelter don’t need to be carried, you purchase them as you go along. If you get hurt, you’re usually within a few hours of a hospital so you don’t need to carry a lot of first aid gear.

All you really need is a medium-sized backpack, an open mind, and an open heart. Which leads us to Deep Thought #2.

Absolute Truth #2 – God is present in all people and all things

Right about now you’re thinking: is Michael going to have an original thought anywhere in this post? The answer is: I’m not sure so stay tuned.

I’m reading a book right now entitled “Fly Fishing – the Sacred Art: Casting a Fly as a Spiritual Practice.” It’s written by a Christian minister/MD named Michael Attas and a rabbi named Eric Eisenkramer. The book combines some basic fly-fishing instruction with thoughts about the wonder of the natural world, the benefits of solitude, the blessing of community and the search for the Divine.

Sounds just like my Camino experience.

One of the concepts discussed in the book is panentheism, which “makes the claim that God is in all matter and all of creation. All humans have this spark of divinity within us, as does all matter – earth, waters, fish, birds, forests, and trees.” It’s easier to recognize this on the Camino because everyone and everything is carrying less stuff.

Walking the Camino, you meet people from all over the world and you never know who is rich and who is poor. They’ve left their stuff behind and chosen to carry their possessions on their back. It’s a great equalizer. When you meet someone on the Camino, the spark of the Divine is usually apparent immediately. It’s like whoa! This guy is the most amazing person I’ve ever met! Until you meet the next person, of course. If you don’t notice their spark, it’s usually because you’re not paying attention. Not that that ever happened to me.

Once you start noticing the Divine in everyone, it’s easy to notice the Divine in everything around you. Fields of sunflowers, hunting dogs, purple stuffed animals, bicycles, beer. You don’t need to search for the Divine. Get rid of your stuff and the Divine fills the void.

to be continued..

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The Road to Madrid – Part 2

The news was not good. Without the credit card used to purchase my airline ticket online, I would not be able to get on the plane.

But there was a workaround. I could buy a new ticket for $1000+. This was not really good news but I tried to stay calm. It didn’t work. There seemed to be a choice between two bad alternatives. If I didn’t get on the plane, the value of my original ticket was lost. That’s $900+ out the window. If I got on the plane, it would cost me $1000 on top of my original $900. Hmmm.

The agent offered a glimmer of hope. He would accept the $1000 as a deposit. If I could somehow get my credit card to the Qatar Airways office in Bali, there might be away to get my money back for the second flight. I looked at my watch which now indicated 15 minutes to takeoff and decided to buy a new ticket.

The agents sprang into action to run my credit card, get me the seats I wanted, pay my departure tax, and check my hiking poles. I asked if they were holding the plane for me and they said it wasn’t even boarding yet. Hmmm.

I grabbed my boarding pass, said a few half-hearted thank you’s (why??) and bolted through the terminal. To my surprise, the boarding area was full and no one had boarded. I looked at my watch. 15 minutes after takeoff time. Then I looked at the airport clock. 45 minutes until takeoff. It was then I realized my second bone-headed move. My watch was set on Bali time, which is one hour later than Jakarta time. I had an hour more than I thought. I don’t think it made any difference in the outcome, it only cost me a few more anxious moments. I got on the plane and we took off a little after midnight. The day was already eighteen hours long.

Since then things have gone pretty smoothly. I arrived in beautiful downtown Doha at 4 am local time. About 90 degrees and HUMID. Isn’t this supposed to be a desert? World’s longest bus ride between the plane and the terminal. I swear it was at least 30 minutes long. It was like a tour of all the wonderful airport facilities. And on your left is the toilet servicing area. Right next to the catering kitchens. Here’s the cargo area and here’s where my cousin works in airport security. I think I’ll stop and say hello. Finally we reach the transfer terminal and get blasted by the a/c.

Did you you can buy a Bentley GT at the duty free shop in Doha? I wonder if they still have the guy hand it to you as you get on the plane. Mr. Schlesinger, here’s your carton of cigarettes, fifth of Seagram’s and Bentley GT. Wait till the guys in economy see this!

But I digress. Oh, one more thing. I know airport food is expensive but should a double latte really cost $6+? I should have priced the Bentley.

So now it’s 6:30 am local time and back to the tour bus. Since it was dark when we landed, let’s drive by all the wonderful airport facilities in the daylight to appreciate all their magnificence. My cousin has finished his shift but I think my brother-in-law just punched in at baggage handling. Actually, it was cool to see downtown Doha which looks exactly like you would expect a UAE capital to look like. LOTS of high-rises in white undulating shapes.

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The flight left about an hour late because we were waiting for a few late transfers. Or maybe they had trouble loading the Bentley in the overhead.

Retreat

Every year for the past 26 years, my family has attended a family retreat in Montecito, California. For those of you who have not heard of it, Montecito is a residential community near Santa Barbara that is known for its famous part-time residents – Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe, Ellen DeGeneres, Drew Barrymore and a few investment fund managers who can afford the ridiculous real estate prices. Montecito, however, is also the home of La Casa de Maria retreat center, a 28-acre oasis in the midst of celebrity and financial power. La Casa de Maria is the former novitiate for an order of nuns, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who acquired the property in the 1940’s and converted a portion to a retreat center in the late 1960’s. Read the complete story below:

http://www.independent.com/news/2008/aug/28/how-group-ex-catholic-nuns-saved-their-famous-mont/

Family retreat for me has always been the way to connect with a larger community of families who understand the challenges of raising children in today’s world. Over the past 26 years, I’ve grown to love this community as much as my blood family, and when faced with triumph or tragedy, this is the community that gives me support and unconditional love.

As our children have gotten older, their ability to attend the entire five days has been limited. For our two oldest, it’s been years since they’ve been able to attend. For our two youngest, however, the experience of family retreat has been a constant part of their summer for their entire lives.

As the four of us drove up the entry road earlier today, I started to see the retreat center in a different way. Suddenly the landscape and buildings took me back to the Camino. As I sat in the chapel for the opening service, I imagined the pilgrim mass in Roncevalles in which the priest gave a blessing to all those on their journey to Santiago. After the service, I had another flashback as the group of over one hundred gathered for dinner – the dinner we shared at the Refuge d’Orisson with pilgrims from South Africa, Brazil, Korea and many other countries.

La Casa de Maria has been my pilgrimage for the past 26 years. it’s a pilgrimage that requires me to journey for a full year before welcoming me back to the same place. In some years, it seems like I’m a lot different. In other years, it’s my fellow pilgrims who have changed. This year, we lost one of our community members due to a brain aneurysm. Her husband spoke of her presence in our midst and shared some stories about her love for us and for La Casa de Maria. It reminded me of the journey we all share, whether it’s across Spain in 5 or six weeks or across a 26-year span of our lives. We are all one family, heading in the same direction.

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The photo on the left is the small chapel in Roncevalles, the one on the right is La Casa de Maria in Montecito, CA.

The Backpack Club – June 23, 2013

Yesterday was my second day of training for the Camino in August. Our goal was to complete 10+ miles around Upper Newport Bay near our house. My wife Kathryn and I left the house around 9 am and started walking under typical June overcast skies. Here’s a photo of me at the start.

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A few blocks into our walk, we said hello to a man walking his dog and he asked if we were in training for something. When we answered yes, he immediately guessed “that Camino thing.” His name was Jack and he said his wife Joy was talking about it and encouraging him to go. He suggested that we poke our heads into their house a few doors down and introduce ourselves. Joy was very surprised to see us but was excited to hear about our trip. She said she was planning to walk the Camino someday whether Jack went along or not.

A few blocks later we were stopped once again by a jogger named Mike who asked about our gear. He had heard about the Camino but he was talking to his family earlier that day about their trip hiking in the Pyrenees next summer. They’re not planning to hike the Camino, but it sounds like a great trip nonetheless.

So now we’ve been on our hike less than 30 minutes and we’ve already spent half the time talking to interested people who are excited to hear about our adventures. Wearing backpacks must send out a secret message of fraternity. I know that works on the Camino but I didn’t know it worked in Orange County, California.

Thinking back to my first training hike, I recall meeting another couple who were wearing backpacks. Of course I had to ask them what they were training for. Turns out they were heading up to Mt. Whitney in July. For those who are not familiar with it, Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in the continental US, roughly 14,500 feet tall (4,420 meters). It’s a bucket list adventure and worth every minute suffering in the thin air.

Back to sea level, which you’ll notice in the pictures below, Kathryn and I cruised around the upper bay in about 3-1/2 hours and we didn’t see any more people wearing backpacks.

In the next blog, I’ll share my effort to learn “real” Spanish.

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