2016: My Year-End Review (Part 2 of 4)

(Blogger’s Note: This is the second in a series of year-end blog posts focusing on milestones and challenges in both the old year, and the new.)

“Never get into a fight with a pig in the mud. You get dirty, and the pig loves it.” ~ unknown

It’s not easy to say something that’s practically contrary your very nature, so at the beginning I should first say this:

I have peace. Never have I felt less conflicted about priorities, truth, and the pursuit for growth. And I wish the same peace for you.

Because it happened to me for three long years, and because I’ve lived up close and personal with chronic depression, no one hates a gloom-and-doom outlook more than me. At the slightest hint of gloom and doom, I run. So, there is no great pleasure in the paragraph that follows:

The New Year forebodes the makings of a perfect storm. It reveals a potential like never before to rob us of the things we’ve always claimed as important – things like civility, truth, kindness, charity and an overall goodwill toward humanity.  screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-5-46-09-amIt has the potential for a complete societal reset, destroying decency and bringing new vigor to a shallow, watered-down life of meaningless, labeled identities. And if the New Year takes us there, further than we’ve already gone down that path in 2016, it’s a long road back home. The Prodigal Son had to walk that road when he found himself wallowing with pigs.

Cults have thrived on less well-developed story lines than the one already coming together for 2017. And lest I remind you of a place called Jonestown in 1978. It didn’t turn out well for those who got caught up in the story. There was a devastating metaphor that evolved from that tragedy. It’s now known as “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

Whether you realize it or not, whether you want to believe it or not, even if you immediately deny it as true, as many will – it is true. We’re ripe for a breakdown. I hate writing those words from which I’d normally run.

All this comes not from some lingering frustration over an election, not from loyalty to any polarizing labels that dictate false ideas like “binary choices,” not from any agenda at all, but rather from my own experience in public service and a lifetime of working in, and studying mass media communication. And if you know me, I’ve been writing with melancholy about a deteriorating media for years.

Everything I’ve seen and experienced in the world of public service and mass media points to six foundational components that warn of a seismic societal shift. There are many others and I’ll write about those tomorrow, but the six that follow are critical:

  1. New leadership in the United States is gifted at mass media manipulation like no leadership we’ve seen. Void of substance, it’s based on a keen understanding of bait and switch techniques and preys on demographic vulnerabilities and emotions that couldn’t be further removed from our best interests. It’s the ultimate exhibition in distractive technique. The product, just as intended, is polarizing conflict and division.
  2. By and large, mainstream media lost its objectivity 20 years ago when the economics of survival dictated the need for demographic-directed programming. Pure, pristine news coverage that allows consumers to evaluate world affairs for themselves is long a thing of the past. What mass media now requires is the perpetuation of an ongoing, drama-infused, conflict-driven story. And it needs you to keep watching.
  3. The two circumstances above create a parasitical relationship as never seen before.  screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-2-28-59-amWhile the leadership and the media want you to believe there’s a dramatic, enemy-like tension between them, nothing could be further from the truth. Each feeds off, and perpetuates the other. They are bed partners. Don’t play into the false narrative of their check and balance system. This dysfunctional relationship is the most dangerous thing, foreign or domestic, the US has ever faced. Truth is, it’s the new enemy.
  4. Self-centered, self-interest is now modeled for us at the highest levels. Do you know what creates big changes over time? Exposure. The more we’re exposed to certain behaviors, the more acceptable and adoptive they become. Modeled behavior shapes both the good and the bad, and can do so in big numbers.
  5. If you love words as I do, you might notice two rapidly growing trends: (1) the shifting perceived definition of words that have generally been foundational to an American society (e.g. evangelical, Christian, marriage, truth, man, woman, gender, sex, etc.); and (2) a new kind of empty language aimed at diffusing certain historically narrowly defined truths  (e.g. May the Universe send you light, love, positivity and special vibes today.) These new definitions and the new evolving language speak nothing of substance outside a desire to be gods and goddesses of self. It’s thus consistent with the modeling cited above.
  6. We’re having great difficulty distinguishing patriotism from religious fervor.

I’ve written a lot lately about our need for information filters and anchor points. They may be the two most important foundations for a meaningful and happy life in 2017. Never has the simple idea of “responsibility for self” been more important. A new world demands that we rededicate to some basic, yet important decisions to help us guard our hearts and our heads.

In the next two days, I’ll expand on the challenges I see in 2017, and some practical ways I believe we can anchor ourselves in the blowing winds of a post-truth world.

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2016: My Year-End Review (Part 1 of 4)

(Blogger’s Note:  This is the first in a series of reflections on 2016. Today’s post recounts some personal milestones. Tomorrow will highlight some big-picture things we all witnessed and experienced.)

Name seven awesome things that turned 50 in 2016.

There was Astro Turf, Doritos, Fresca, the Toyota Corolla, the Super Bowl, Star Trek, … and well … Your’s Truly.

Fifty years. My Lord.

Because such a milestone was just around the corner I was already thinking a lot about 2016 this time last year. I wanted to experience significant things, real things, even make a lasting mark this year. I hoped to have tangible achievements this year. Here’s how the year fared:

  • More than anything, I’d hoped to publish my first book. The experience of walking across Spain in 2015 was filled with incredible stories, both
    The personal sell (stamp) I created for letters and whatnot. Design credit: Hanne Pelletier

    The personal sello (stamp) I created for letters and whatnot. Design credit: Hanne Pelletier

    internal and external. The transition from journalist to literary author was astoundingly more difficult than I imagined. Good writing in one place does not equal good writing in the other. That was my lesson. The draft for #PilgrimStrong currently stands at about 50,000 words and is just a few chapters from completion. Decisions about the direction for the completed draft remain, but are much clearer than they were months ago. It truly is a marathon writing a good book, and I insist this work be the best it can be. Balancing patience with peace was a huge lesson this year.

  • In a completely unplanned moment, Dana and I booked another October trip to Spain so she could share in the pilgrimage experience I had a year earlier.  Together, we spent 30 days walking some 275 miles with a backpack and pair of shoes. I believe marriages need big experiences like this where you share intense time together and really depend on one another. Times like this become anchor points in a marriage and they hold things in place. When you share something together that’s hard, fun, adventurous, seemingly impossible at times, and completely laughable … well, you’ve really done something together. Sharing the pilgrim experience with Dana is one of the highlights of my life.
We made it!

We made it!

  • In April, I attended my first real literary conference in Asheville, NC and pitched my book to eight different reputable agents. The process is much like I imagine speed dating. It’s an interesting experience selling an idea you’ve poured your heart and soul into for months when there’s five minutes on the clock. Even though no one offered me a million-dollar contract and begged me to write another book, (that’s what I wanted, ha) I count it a successful trip.
  • We joined a church in April which was kind of a big deal. That might surprise people who are familiar with much of the way I express myself in writing, but truth is I’ve had a fairly volatile relationship with church (i.e. what we’ve made of church) over recent years. In fact, I’d just about given up, concluding church wasn’t really necessary for the kind of life I wanted to live. I was wrong. We’re thrilled with the mission of The Rock of Northeast Arkansas. It’s a bible-based church focused on the deity of Jesus and the Great Commission. The leadership is humble and transparently real. I could say so much about this, but will end with the sentiment that I’m just so happy we didn’t give up on church.
  • It was another year when by way of more wisdom than I once had, I let several ideas go. That’s so hard for people like me. When you have an idea that you’re passionate for, it’s difficult not to engulf yourself in that idea, full steam ahead. But I have the battle scars to show you it’s not always the right thing. Once again, I passed on the food truck idea this year. God closed a door that I honestly thought was the real thing when I had a vision for a Spain-like neighborhood cafe just two blocks from our home (I recently wrote about that here). We looked at a small hotel for sale in a “resort town” about a hundred miles from Jonesboro, and I even made a serious call to a culinary school, but they weren’t accepting students for the spring semester. As you see, there’s a theme in all that, and it’s a belief that’s been refined from time traveling abroad. Much as writing does, I believe in food and hospitality, and how they can be used to perpetuate certain callings. Life is literally lived out in Spanish cafes and bars. Those ideas aren’t going away. It’ll be interesting to see how they play out this year.
  • On the topic of traveling abroad, I spent 82 days outside the United States in the last 12 months. Outside my faith and family, it’s the single thing I love most and radically shapes how I think. Up next is Ecuador for four weeks with wheels up on January 13.
  • The friendships we’ve created through travel really grew this year – not just on-the-ground friends, but those with whom we’ve made
    Coffee with new friends in Santiago - Steve, Darla and Andrew.

    Coffee with new friends in Santiago – Steve, Darla and Andrew.

    acquaintance sharing our experiences online. We’ve connected with so many people in the US and abroad just because of places we’ve been and things we’ve done. If you’re one of those people reading now, I want you to know how thankful we are for that relationship, and how much we truly enjoy the conversations we share with you.

  • It was through one such friendship that I got the unique opportunity this year to submit a video application for a TED talk. I connected with Michelle Burch Coleman, a communication professor and fellow outdoor enthusiast, during my first pilgrimage last year.  When I asked her consideration for a testimonial on my blogsite, we took it a step further and pitched an idea to TEDx Dayton where she coaches speakers on occasion. I didn’t make the final cut, but the possibility, and experience of the early phases in that process pushed my limits in a way that helped me grow. Thank you, Michelle, for that opportunity.
  • Things like gardening and recycling became a much bigger priority for me
    I had almost eight weeks of a garden harvest like this every day.

    I had almost eight weeks of a garden harvest like this every day.

    in 2016. I think it’s just the desire to do things that are real. Meditate on these terrible facts today: In calendar year 2016, US citizens will discard 35 billion (with a B) plastic water bottles. Furthermore, we’ll place 100 billion plastic shopping bags in our nation’s landfills, the total of which required 12 million barrels of oil to produce. Those bags will deteriorate over a millennium.

  • I created a YouTube channel this year where I have lots of videos including this one – a reflection about my first pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago:
  • Got a tattoo -a scallop shell, the symbol of the camino pilgrim. A wise Frenchman told me once, “A true pilgrim never stops walking the path.” Thank you for those words, Jeannick Guerin, and thanks to my friend, Beth Jusino (now my tattoo twin) for graciously letting my copy her creative idea.

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-3-06-49-pm

  • Tossed and turned all night on April 16 as we worried about friends in family in  Ecuador when a 7.8 earthquake hit close to home. Our house was spared and our friends and family were okay, but it was a horrific ordeal where thousands lost their lives and  the rebuilding will go on for years. World news barely covered it.screen-shot-2016-12-26-at-2-44-00-pm
  • One of my best achievements this year has been turning off network news. I spent two decades in the news business and love what it once was, yet despise what it has become. I haven’t seen television news in more than 70 days, and my life is better.
  • In 2016, I grew to believe the things I believe even more and with a stronger commitment to truth than ever before.

More on that from a much different perspective tomorrow, and in the following days.

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Praying for a Closed Door

There’s nothing that excites me more than a good idea. And one of the things I’ve learned to guard against is my own propensity to get carried away with an idea that stirs the heart. Sometimes, I can go for months with no such inspiration. In other seasons, the “good ideas” will break and ebb perpetually as waves on the beach.

When an idea evolves to opportunity, it’s often exciting, but perilous ground.

In 50 years it’s become evident when something that feels like a good idea pours into my heart, it’s best to resist a natural urge to go with a gut instinct that almost always wants to bore full steam ahead. Some call it patience, or a process of discernment, or even the kind of wisdom that comes with age. I often call it excruciating agony.

But I’ve made enough of those kinds of mistakes that it comes easier than it once did. Thank God for his grace and freedom that permits our mistakes and wrong turns.

As Dana and I walked the Camino a few weeks ago, I meditated and prayed on two or

I love taking photos of doors across the Camino. It seems they take on a greater meaning to the Spaniards than in other places across the world.

I love taking photos of doors across the Camino. It seems they take on a greater meaning to the Spaniards than in other places across the world.

three ideas that have ebbed and flowed through my heart for a few years now. While each had the potential to fulfill a unique calling I feel toward my own purpose, my relatively new proclivity to patience, and the desire to get it exactly right the next time around have created a kind of extended “holding pattern” that’s been both uncomfortable and peaceful at the same time.  It’s an odd enigma that feels strangely normal now, and pours out of a heartfelt desire to follow what’s most real in my life.

One of those ideas has long involved the acquisition of neighborhood commercial property just two blocks from our home. It’s an ideal place for living out a calling Dana and I both sense in our lives – one of those rare things that comes almost naturally with no effort at all. In the times it’s come available in recent years and when my juices would flow, something always said, “Wait, wait, wait. It’s not your time just yet.” So I’ve waited. I meditated on this circumstance a lot as we walked.

One night on the Camino as we overnighted in Mañeru, a small village just outside Puenta la Reina, I enjoyed the best night’s sleep we’d had since the trek began. The bed was comfortable, the room was absent the stuffiness we’d experienced for the several preceding nights, and the proprietors were kind and gracious. There were even enough spare pillows around to create the nightly nest I’m accustomed to back home. The good sleep brought a transcendent peace.

Less than a handful of times I’ve experienced dreams (for lack of a better term) that were more real than reality. At times, they’ve been as vivid and clear as the most beautiful day in your life. Last year, I wrote about one such experience here. Others, like this one, brought a less resplendent confirming peace that satisfies a restless soul like few things I’ve ever known.

That night, I felt the voice of the Holy Spirit telling me the property back home would be available to me when we returned, and the “time” was now. And it didn’t feel remotely abrupt. It was dream-like, yet not a dream. It sounds weird, but it wasn’t. When I awoke, I said, “okay,” and we walked on. The experience was as real as the blisters I’d been nursing for days now, yet graciously didn’t overwhelm the pilgrimage experience as some profound revelation. It seemed, rather, just a natural, seamless part of the bigger experience. I’d best describe it as “gentle.”

And so we walked on. Ultreia, we say on the camino.

***

Yesterday, 19 days post-camino I went through the regular morning routine of gathering what I needed to complete the daily errands. Our neighborhood is configured in such a way that almost any errand takes me by that property. As I approached, there was an unusual activity that caught my eye as movers emptied the building into three large moving vans. There was another strange sensation as if a surprise that I knew was coming. I’m becoming more accustomed to these odd sensitivities.

My “dream” had come true. The business located on the property was moving to a new location. Maybe it wasn’t a dream after all.

On the spot, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to begin making calls and contacts about the property, like a natural extension of the peace I’d experienced in that cozy albergue bed.

If we pursue this calling, a dozen things will have to perfectly align to make it work. A personality like mine can get easily worked up about scenarios far less involved than this. It would be easy to push things in an excitedly urgent sort of way. I have to remind myself if it’s God’s plan for us, that peaceful sense will remain throughout.

I’m not an eloquent prayer. My prayers are simple conversations with God and I frequently find myself at a loss for exactly what to say in situations like this. In just that situation last night, I recalled a recent conversation with a respected long-distance friend now considering three extraordinary service opportunities all at the same time. Any one of them fits his gifting and unique capacity to make a real difference in the world. As we agreed to pray for one another about some different things, here’s a paraphrase of something he said that seemed the perfect answer to prayer about my own situation:

“So I need unmistakable guidance. When I have asked for such in the past, God has always been so kind to clearly open certain doors and clearly slam others shut.”

The realization brought a reinforced peace that feels so right. If I truly pursue His will, and if He’s in this situation as I want Him to be, and if it’s purposed for His glory and not mine, he’ll close the door shut if it’s not His will. It gave me such peace to know if this opportunity somehow vanishes, it will be Him who closed the door for my good.

“Lord if it’s not right, close the door. Slam it shut. Slam it hard.”

I’m good with that. Anyway, it’s exciting, and all good.

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A Note a Day: 365 Days That Aren’t About Me

I spent two hours writing an entirely different blog post offering a detailed explanation about why I decided to take on a new daily blog. Then I threw it away. True and genuine as it was, it would’ve been far too divisive – a terrible start to a new and heartfelt purpose.

But there were some things this year that really impacted my view on the world in a deep, intimate and personal way – things we all watched – things many of us couldn’t believe we were seeing. One moment I recall in particular still tears at me. As Dana and I walked across Spain in October and November, I tried my best to process it all. To be honest with you a couple of days out there were downright depressing.

When I was a kid, I really thought I’d be president of the United States. There was an astronaut phase. In high school, I decided I’d probably settle for governor of Arkansas. I wanted to impact the world. Always have.

Our world has changed a LOT in the last two years – maybe more so than during thescreen-shot-2016-12-07-at-11-08-03-am collective 48 years leading up to my last two. We’re increasingly fear-motivated and conflict-driven. Ironically, a world that’s become more available to us all is pushing many into polarized corners where we’d rather be with people who look like us think like us and believe like us. We’re approaching zero tolerance for diversity of opinion. Hatefulness is part of our daily experience. The kind of behavior I disciplined my own children for is now the acceptable norm among adults.

My heart wants to change all this. My head knows it probably won’t.

At some point during our pilgrimage I felt God tell me to let Him take care of the world. My responsibility, He said, is my own little corner of it. I decided to cast aside the things that are frustrating, disingenuous, even false, and drill down to something that is simple and genuine and true. And more importantly than anything, I think, I resolved to take the focus off ME. I’m sick of myself.

And so I’ve decided to write a note a day.

The simple discipline of writing 365 personal notes in a year is exactly what I need. In 2017, I want my life to be about what I know God desires for each of us. He wants us to take our eyes off ourselves. So many other things take care of themselves beyond that one, simple act.

It’s easy to imagine thank you notes, encouragement, apologies, special acknowledgments, maybe notes that should’ve been written, but never were. It’ll be interesting to see where it leads, but it’s one small discipline to keep me focused on what’s real and important. It’s not that big a deal really – just something I thought I could add to a few other daily rituals, just as I believe in walking, meditating and daily bible reading.

All notes will be published at a new, developing site noteaday.com. The site isn’t finished, but there’s a widget there now that will allow you to follow by email once posts begin on January 1. Feel free to sign up any time if you like.

I’m also open to your suggestions and ideas. Note categories, different approaches, whatever. It’s still a work in progress. Let me know what you think.

Feel free to join me on the new blog next year for the simple act of writing a note a day.

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High-Rolling Luxury in Santo Domingo

 

 

One of my favorite hospitaleras on the Way in Nájera. I'm so sorry I failed to get her name. She redeemed my spirit that day.

One of my favorite hospitaleras on the Way in Nájera. I’m so sorry I failed to get her name. She redeemed my spirit that day.

“Oh, Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?” ~ Janis Joplin

If you own a car, even if it’s a rusty junker, you’re among the top 9 percent most affluent people on the planet. In 2008 the average American family owned 2.28 cars, and that’s enough to get you in the top 1%.

  • More than 800 million people don’t have access to clean water.
  • Well more than half the world population has no indoor plumbing.
  • 1.3 billion have no access to electricity.
  • Nearly 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day.

From the moment I roll out of bed, in the first five minutes of any given day, if I’ve flipped the light switch, flushed the toilet and brushed my teeth, I’ve accessed amenities that billions of people don’t have. And I hardly think a thing about it.

***

There are so many things so much more difficult than trekking the Camino de Santiago. You may get a little wet, or hot, or cold, or tired, or sustain an injury or two. It may (in fact it will) test you mentally, and physically, and spiritually. But at the end of each day you’re going to satisfy your hunger and thirst, and the odds are high you’ll have a bed at night. A bedbug or two may nibble on an appendage, but you’ll sleep on a mattress or a mat, and have flushable toilets.

Every necessity for life is present, but at so many stages along the Way most of us who reside in the first world experience an epiphany about just how good we have it.

***

The previous Saturday night in Nájera had been a real blessing. I was in good spirits, but blisters were in full eruption, and I was tired. It was nearing two weeks that I’d been gone from home and the weather was perfect, just like I imagined it was back home. Fall in Arkansas is exquisite.

While I was walking across Spain, most of my friends back home were at tailgate parties, slow-cooking smoked barbecue, drinking cold beer chilled on ice, and having a good time as kickoff approached. Saturday Down South, as it’s known, is what happens the day before Sunday In Church.

The  thought of it all made me, not terribly, but a little homesick, so I decided to make an early day of it, and was the first arrival at Puerta de Nájera Albergue. It looked like a nice place to just chill on a Saturday afternoon, and that’s exactly what I wanted. It was another of the places where the hospitalera, who was actually the owner in this case, extended gracious loving-kindness. She was an angel to every single person who walked through the door.

I took advantage of my early arrival to get a hot shower and clean shave, and walked back downstairs in fresh clothes to relax. I think I mostly wanted to enjoy more of the owner’s pleasant aura because her servant’s heart reminded me of my wife. I missed Dana most days, but especially on Saturdays.

It was a great Saturday afternoon atmosphere. I found an amazingly comfortable couch and joined a young German man who’d also checked in early because of his raw, blistered feet. He was out of commission for at least the next two days. It was that bad.

As we were both taking journal notes, the kind owner brought us two glasses and a Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 5.16.25 AMbottle of white wine. I’m not even really a wine guy, but it tasted so good. I savored the flavors and wondered if I’d passed by the vineyards from where it originated.

All afternoon and evening pilgrims made their way in – some in larger groups, others solo. It was a great day to be off my feet, clean and watch fellow peregrinos walk across the threshold – Germans, Australians, Belgians, French, but none of my fellow countrymen. I was seeing a surprisingly low number of North Americans on the Way.

I made it an early night and climbed into the lower bunk around 8, but just couldn’t sleep, and missed the cozy, homey atmosphere downstairs. So I walked back down and found that comfortable couch available again. I think Dana and I had some FaceTime on the phone.

The most comfortable couch in all of Spain. I guarantee it.

The most comfortable couch in all of Spain. I GA-RON-TEE it.

By 11 most everyone had made their way upstairs and into bed, but the couch was honestly the most comfortable furniture I’d been on in weeks. As the owner was dimming the lights and shutting down for the night, she walked over with a pillow and an extra blanket. She asked if that’s where I’d like to stay for the night.

“Es vale?” I asked, making sure it would be okay.

“Es su casa, mi hermano,” she replied. Her home was mine. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a more gracious moment. It was kind of like being tucked in. I slept like a rock that night.

***

At different times in my life, I’ve often been frustrated by the inability to see ahead – to know the “next thing.” It’s the tendency we all have in our lives to control every circumstance. Basically, it’s playing God.

It’s for good reason that we can’t. Wouldn’t life be monotonously boring if we knew exactly what new experience was around every bend?

The LONG road to Santo Domingo de la Calzada.

The LONG road to Santo Domingo de la Calzada.

There are certain stretches along the Camino where you can seemingly see forever. A few stages are so clear, straight and flat, that you can see your end-of-day destination 10 miles away. It’s not until you’ve walked toward something for six hours that you realize how very frustrating it can be. It’s almost as if you’ll never arrive. It’s drudgery.

The next Sunday morning walk toward Santo Domingo was exactly that kind of experience, and gave me time to consider how thankful I was God had granted me the patience and understanding to know how much better it was to trust Him, and let go of the hopeless cause to manipulate my future. I’m not God. And besides that, the older I grow, the more I truly enjoy and appreciate the character building and life lessons that come with the unknown. It’s just more fun not knowing.

After what seemed an eternity of walking toward Santo Domingo, I arrived late Sunday afternoon.

***

Though I’d experienced light rain and considerable heavy, dreary dampness through much of the first week and a half, there hadn’t been anything I’d call an outright, miserable, pouring rain. But the forecast called for exactly that in the next 24 hours.

I didn’t have an unlimited budget, and wanted to do everything I could to have an authentic experience on the Way. Early on, my attitude about hotels (however rare they are on the Camino) was a negative. I’d pre-determined I might treat myself to something nicer at the end, but really wanted to stick to a humble-amenity game plan for most of the walk. As the Camino does, it changed my mind about that.

I found that every 10 days to two weeks I was a better pilgrim after I’d had a little privacy, a hot bath, and slept between clean, bedbug-free sheets. More about this in Chapter 16.

My foremost concern walking into Santo Domingo were the heavy rain warnings forecast for the next morning. After 10 days on the trail, I was entering the first psychological stage of a weary mind, and the infamous 10-day trek across Meseta was just ahead. Blistered feet and a weary mind, with a need to further mentally prepare for the Meseta told me it might not be a good idea to walk in an all-day downpour.

The thing about the simple, modestly priced albergues, is that they run on a strict schedule. Many typically hosts dozens of pilgrims each night, so it’s a tight ship in terms of check in, check out, clean up and preparing for a new day. Most albergues require pilgrims to leave no later than 8 in the morning. And it doesn’t really matter if it’s pouring rain or blowing snow. Check out time? Vaya con Dios, pilgrims. You’re outta here.

Walking further into town I noticed one of the most popular albergues with a five-euro sign out front. I peaked in the window and saw Jeannick sitting at a table visiting with on older crotchety, French pilgrim I’d also encountered days ago. I just didn’t feel like having conversation, and knew I’d be kicked out of there bright and early the next morning, rain or shine.

A few meters further, a plaza opened up, and there it was. The Parador. It’s a name synonymous with luxury on the Camino. If the Parador took American Express, I was about to enjoy some first-world pleasure.

Livin' it up at The Parador in Santo Domingo. This is where I acquired my trail name, High Roller. More about that later.

Livin’ it up at The Parador in Santo Domingo. This is where I acquired my trail name, High Roller. More about that later.

Not only would it give me privacy, a hot tub and clean towels – check out time was daily at noon. If the heavy rains did come, the extra cost was an investment in extra time that might allow the rain to pass. I was thrilled with my own strategic thinking about the possibilities.

The hotel receptionist said they gladly accepted American Express, but had experienced some trouble with their card reading machine earlier that day. I’m sure it’s a similar problem many pilgrims experienced in medieval times. As he ran the card, I literally held my breath. My heart was now set on a night in a hotel.

A faint beep, and the ticket rolled out. Music to my ears. He handed me a key to Room 209, and I walked into a place that might as well have been Heaven.

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I’m 50: And No Longer Untested

50. Two score and 10. Half a century. L.

However you phrase it, I become all those things today, and it’s nice to have this one day, when you stand ON TOP of the hill and look out all around to the landscape long passed, and capture a hopeful glimpse of that which is yet to come.

No, I can’t believe it. No, I don’t really comprehend it.

Yes, it blows me away. And yes, I’m completely okay with it.

In fact, despite the milestone reminder that time is moving ever so quickly, I’ve never been more in the zone, never more sure of my purpose, and never so completely at peace.

I’m battle tested through the teens, 20s, 30s and 40s, and there were bloody wounds, now nothing more than reminiscent scars – wisdom even. There were mistakes. Regrets. Lessons. And a few victories along the way.  I am no longer untested, yet the test goes on.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 11.29.46 AM

I’ve been tested enough to know WHAT I’VE LEARNED. I’VE LEARNED:

  • You can’t unscramble an egg.
  • How to talk less, listen more, and most importantly at times shut up and walk away.
  • Things are rarely what they seem.
  • Looking at yourself in the mirror, being comfortable in your own skin – whatever metaphor you wish to use about this, you’ll never be truly happy and at peace until you can do these things.
  • It’s never a good idea to buy a mattress (where you spend 1/3 of your life) from a store called Sleep Cheap.

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I’ve been tested enough to know WHAT I REGRET. I REGRET:

  • Hurt that I’ve caused to family and friends because of my own selfishness.
  • So much of the feeling that I have worked hard for, and deserve, what I have, when in actuality, none of it belongs to me. Not one thing.
  • That in so many of the most special moments, I didn’t stop, and breath and take a better picture in my mind. I’m more intentional about that now.
  • Pride.
  • That it took so long to learn how to make big decisions, balancing them with gut feelings, and the wisdom of experience. It’s just that wisdom takes time, and there’s no way around it.

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I’ve been tested enough to know WHAT I BELIEVE. I BELIEVE:

  • I have studied the sciences, read the scholars, and traveled the world. At the end of it all, I believe in God the Father. God the Son. And God the Holy Spirit. And despite my flaws and failures, I believe there is no higher aspiration than bringing glory to Jesus’ name.
  • In the pursuit of Truth. I believe relevant truth is a contradictory term. I have a go-to source for Truth. It’s called the Bible. If not to Him, “to whom shall we go?”
  • There is future day of judgment. And my greatest concern about that judgment today is not my eternal destiny, but how I use the gifts God has given me for the greater good.
  • The greatest things in the world result from a step of faith.
  • Everyone, everyone, everyone, needs a cheerleader.
  • We’re all at our very best when we’re cheering for others.
  • Finally, I believe that everything I just wrote in this section will turn a lot of people off, assure them of my narrow mindedness, and cause them to stop reading right here. And I’ve mostly had to stop caring about that. Let it rain.

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I’ve been tested enough to know WHAT I ONCE BELIEVED, BUT NO LONGER BELIEVE. I NO LONGER BELIEVE:

  • That our resumé is the measure of who we are.
  • Organized religion/church is at fault for anything. Yes, I once believed that, but no longer believe it. The Church has zero obligation or responsibility to us. We have a responsibility to ourselves. And the church is one (only one) tool through which we grow, and serve. I no longer believe I can blame the church for anything. If something about the church has hurt you, it wasn’t truly of the church.
  • That my convictions count for anything.
  • There’s plenty of time…

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I’ve been tested enough to know THAT TO WHICH I ASPIRE. I ASPIRE TO:

  • Let the people I love know how much I love them.
  • Have greater compassion, more understanding and create fewer obstacles for myself. I aspire to quit playing God, and get out of my own way.
  • Leave a few good stories behind that my family can share and be proud about.
  • Be less concerned about expressing my convictions, and more concerned about actually making a difference.
  • Be a conduit for conveying how much good there is out there in the world.
  • More humility. Less pride.
  • Go on at least one more great adventure. I have a grandaddy of one in mind. Lord, help me.

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I’ve been tested enough to know THAT FOR WHICH I HOPE. I HOPE:

  • I can fully understand absolute surrender to Christ.
  • I can write a few things that somehow contribute to the greater good, and help someone.
  • We’ll all wake up to realize how we’re being led to conflict and other things that don’t matter in the name of equality, freedom of expression, and a free press.
  • That you can feel the peace I’ve come to feel over the last year.

Yes. I’m 50 now.

And I’m no longer untested. Let it rain.

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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.

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Did I Just Do That?

 

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(Blogger’s Note: This is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of my book in the works, #PilgrimStrong, based on my experience of pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago.)

Chapter 1: Did I Just Do That?

It wasn’t until a three-hour, winding bus trip back from Fisterra to Santiago that my head cleared enough to realize the full-blown state of exhaustive delirium with which I’d entered the square at St. James’ Cathedral two days earlier.

Somehow, it already seemed an eternity past, and was yet so predictably consistent with every other single day of my camino experience where time repudiates the notion it must somehow quickly pass.

On the Camino de Santiago, time actually decompresses. Camino time stretches on endlessly as the Old Roman Road leads trudgingly westward through the infinitely skyscape-defined Meseta. Camino time is unbounded. Without constraint. It lives.

With the first leg of the three-day journey home now well under way, it was a peaceful, restful sensation heading southward through the coastal Galician villages, and there was the bonus of a warm, Mediterranean, crystal clear azure day. It was gorgeous. Truman Capote loved writing here. I understood why.

I kept thinking I should feel differently. I should feel victorious – the triumphant, conquering pilgrim having claimed his prize at the zero marker once believed the End of the World. Far less than a fraction of 1 percent of everyone who’s ever lived experienced the magnitude of what I’d just done. But as we made the turn from the coast eastward through the twisting mountain valleys en route to Santiago, and as I sat watching the kilometers click effortlessly past the window, all I could honestly think about was how completely relieved I was that the walk was over. I kept telling myself I should be on my knees thanking God for granting me this experience. All I could truly do from my heart was thank Him the 500 miles was finished, that I wasn’t completely cold for the first time in nearly three weeks, and that with massive amounts of fabric softener, my clothes might take on at least the smell of neutrality by the weekend.

So after two days of transitioning from weary pilgrim to recovering tourist, it was as if my mind finally gave my body, now 29 pounds lighter, permission to know the degree to which it had taken over, masking the pain of an inflamed, hemorrhaging shin that dictated my gait every single, aching step of the final 100 kilometers from Portomarin to Santiago de Compostela.

The original “plan” to arrive on Thanksgiving Day was clearly blown a week earlier. And by that time, any preconceived goals of time or state of being no longer mattered. I just wanted to make it, and finish strong, even if I had to fake it. And then, I wanted to go home.

My wife and mother were sending me consistent messages to listen to my body. “Nothing is worth hurting so much,” they said, as wives and mothers do.

I remember laughing about the reply I wanted to send them, but didn’t:

“My body says it wants a queen-sized bed with clean sheets, fluffy blankets and a western omelette with wheat toast around 7 a.m., por favor. I stopped listening to my body two weeks ago. If I hadn’t, I’d already be home, y’all.”

The leg honestly hurt like hell, I was beyond exhaustion and my camino sleep pattern never allowed much more than five broken hours a night (which could’ve had something to do with other stinking, snoring pilgrims less than two feet away from my head).

But the very suggestion of not finishing what I’d come to do was completely hateful. I can think of no other word. I abhorred the mention of anything other than a respectable finish on two legs. I’m the one who had to live with how this turned out. No one else, so don’t tell me how to finish – just pray God will carry me a bit further. I already knew He would. We’d had that talk.

From Portamarin on, I would’ve crawled 100 kilometers through the cold, sticky Spanish mud before I’d have given up on planting my walking stick at the foot of the resting place of St. James, Son of Thunder, apostle of Jesus. I’m so glad my mind took over to mask how much those last miles hurt. I just wish I could remember more about it, and have enjoyed more of it. Arriving in the square wasn’t the glorious moment I’d imagined.

Alas, that’s what happens when a certain, special instinct takes over on the Camino.

Maybe you already know it, or maybe you will one day.

I call it – #PilgrimStrong.

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Two Lists of 10: New Post-Camino Commitments to Myself

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“Do you know why people are prone to make such foolish moral decisions? Because something always whispers to us that our situations are unique: Nobody has ever felt this way before.” ~ Andy Stanley

10 Things I’ve Decided I’ll No Longer Do:

1. Watch any form of cable news.

2. Care about sports aside from pure entertainment.

3. Eat junk.

4. Use social media to babysit my boredom.

5. Debate issues of conflict such as guns, immigration, sexual orientation, or the candidacy of any political figure.

6. Care about any political figure.

7. Worry whether my socks match the rest of my “outfit.” Seriously. I don’t need that stress in my life.

8. Engage in conversations where we’re discussing, or saying things that simply aren’t true, and you and I both know it, so why are we doing it? (i.e. “I’ve missed you SO much.” … well, why haven’t you come to see me, then?)

9. Plan almost anything. And go more places on a whim. Many more.

10. Discuss how much I care about something unless I’m actively committed to make a difference or do something about it.

***

10 Things I’ve Decided I’ll Do More Frequently:

1. Hold my wife’s hand, and hug her more.

2. Do more things for my mom.

3. Enjoy a hot shower and warm blanket.

4. Enjoy sweating and do it purposefully each day.

5. Grow more of my own food and cook with natural ingredients.

6. Acts of random, anonymous kindness. And then stay quiet about it.

7. Watch and care for the birds in my backyard.

8. Write with transparency. And be a better listener. And pray with greater intention and expectation. And use this phrase more in everyday conversation: “Suck it up, buttercup.”

9. Read with an open heart and mind.

10. Go completely out of my way to help and love people from other cultures. We’re kinda in all this together, right?

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Post Camino: What Now???

Thursday Night at Memphis International Airport after 11 hours on a plane. My #1 fan and the woman I love.

Thursday Night at Memphis International Airport after 11 hours on two planes. My #1 fan and the woman I love. My Lord, I’m happy to be home with her.

 

Home (T +2 days). 3:30 a.m., and my body still thinks it’s 10:30 a.m. and time to stop for a papa tortilla and a cold San Miguel. Oh the humanity. Anyway … now what???

First, a final, yet sincere thank you to all who followed virtually on my pilgrimage. A special thanks to my family, my prayer team, and members of the American Pilgrims on Camino (APOC) forum. Many, many of you who aren’t already, became family. I’d love to name names, but there are just too many, and I think you know who you are anyway. Thank you for walking with me, and for your encouragement that meant so much on many hard days. From my heart … thank you.

For 99% of the pilgrim population, staying wired to the internet is a BAD idea. DON’T do it. Leave the clutter behind. These opportunities to unwire don’t come along often.

I decided to ignore my own advice early on for three reasons: (1) My livelihood is through story-telling and I wanted to reclaim that important part of my life. It would be more difficult for me NOT to tell the story. I’d have been miserable NOT telling it. It’s just who I am; (2) Documenting the story in real time was therapeutic for me. I carry my own baggage just like everyone else. Every time I shared a photo, video or thought … well, it was a part of my healing, and; (3) APOC is a hugely diverse focus group I wanted to utilize in testing ideas for the future, and as my pilgrimage continues. It was a planned part of my “what next?” from the beginning.

As have many of you on APOC, I’ve read a ton about the camino. I’ve read a few good things, and a lot of not so quality things. I’ve seen video documentaries that touched my soul … others that were, eh … pretty meh.

So I felt from the beginning as though there were room in the marketplace for a new, well-written piece. And subsequently just a few weeks before leaving for Spain, my wife convinced me I was capable of gathering good material for a nice documentary. In October I came to believe those things just might possibly align for a new chapter in my career as a missions-focused journalist. Post-camino, I believe it even more.

There were preconceived notions about the focus of my future book and documentary. The weighty topic of “truth,” and how people across the world view truth was my original mission. As many of you understand, and might expect, the camino has a way of altering, even radically simplifying your perspective on so many things. It did so to my preconceived notions about my post-camino journalism.

Throughout my 40-day walk two simple thoughts recurred in my mind again and again.

(1) This is really hard. (it’s okay if you want to nominate that for understatement of the year.)

(2) What a pleasure it is to be in a place where so very few people cry, complain or make excuses while undertaking something so ridiculously hard. The absence of whining was a breath of fresh air to my soul, honestly. As one man suggested in a post early on, the complainers do exist, but they are pushed to the margins quickly by the majority of pilgrims who will have no part of it.

Life is tough. You know that, and so do I. Yet we walk on, don’t we? We just keep walking. We’re not quitters, you and I. We won’t lay down to defeat. We’re made of something special. There’s a certain “toughness” to us, and yet it’s not something we wear proudly, or with hubris. We’re genuinely thankful for the gift. And we ideally use it to the glory of the one who bestowed it upon us.

Early on in my posts, I began using the hashtag #pilgrimstrong and didn’t think so much about it. It just seemed appropriate as I walked through endless rains, bone-chilling cold and an all-day snowstorm. Some of those days just weren’t for crybabies. I remember walking the first two hours through that snowstorm from Ocebreiro until we came to the first small, open bar with heat and food at Hospital. I bet 30 soaking wet, numb pilgrims were gathered in that small space to dry out, warm up and replenish. And we all knew there was at least another five hours to walk through it to reach Triacastela in the haven of the lower elevations.

It was a situation tailor-made for despair, but do you know what the prevailing mood was in that bar at that moment? Pure joy. Not a complainer in the house. NOT ONE. It was #pilgrimstrong if I’ve ever seen it. At that moment, I was proud to be part of something so special. It really was special.

I’ve purchased the domain pilgrimstrong.com. Don’t bother looking as nothing’s there yet, but it’s the title for both a book and documentary I intend to publish next year, God willing.

The working title is actually, “Pilgrim Strong: Unfiltered Reality on the Camino de Santiago.”

My current thinking is to write this as a complimentary guide to the traditional guidebooks, yet one with less technical and geographic information … just an account of what this experience is really like … absent all the false images.

What I think I discovered though my social media posts on APOC is that in a world that’s so completely driven in our pursuit to create a false image of who, and what we are, simple transparency, mixed with a bit of humor, a willingness to laugh at yourself, and a pinch of occasional sarcasm, works well.

I hope you’ll enjoy the eventual book with some of its working chapter titles including:

The Day I Stopped Being a Pilgrim and Started Being Myself

I Thought I was Supposed to Cry a Lot?

The Pyrenees: That ‘What Have I Done Moment’

40 Nights. 40 Beds.

I Could’ve Just Walked to Pensacola

Know Your Municipal Albergue Tolerance Level (MATL)

I Walked Until My Legs Bled. Really.

Body Management and the One Thing Nobody Talks About

Cold and Damp. Damp and Cold.

Vegan Tom: Little Man, Huge Superiority Complex

I’m Not Changed. I’m Much More of Who I Was.

Naomi & Aida: My Camino  Sisters

Coming Home. Nobody Really Cares

Snowstorm at 4,000 Feet

The Three Phases of Buen Camino

Leaving Cleanliness Behind

Just Keep Walking…

That’s just a working sample of title chapters.

I’ll continue to test, not all, but a lot of this writing here on the blog, and hope to publish in late summer or early fall.

Thanks again to everyone who came on this journey with me. We took quite a ride didn’t we?

Vaya con Dios for now.

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