Week 2: Thin Spaces: Your Truest Sense of Self

 

Here’s a short video I made yesterday in the square. Happiness all around.

 

Twenty years ago I started the practice of spending several hours each New Year’s Day with my grandmother. With a tripod and video recorder in hand I’d ask her questions for hours — the kind of questions you often wonder about long after loved ones are gone. Together, in a sense, we were preserving history.

Well into our visit  one afternoon I asked her this simple question: “When was a time when you felt closest to God?”

She told a story about coming home from work one afternoon and working in her strawberry patch. “I was pulling weeds and picking berries and then there was just this feeling when I was overcome with peace — like a light came over me. I’d never felt it before and I’m not sure I’ve felt it since,” she said.

That was it. That was her story.

I’d expected something so much more colorful and wisdom-filled from this octogenarian I loved and respected so much. But that was it, and she was perfectly content with her reply.

Like so many in our agrarian family, granny sensed God’s presence when she was on her knees and her hands were in the dirt. She believed sincerely that we never owned the land. We were just God’s temporary caretakers.

My grandmother’s thin place was in the garden, and all these years later I identify with the simplicity of her answer. It need not be complicated.

***

 

This group came in yesterday just before noon. I never tire of watching the celebrations.

Going places usually gets something on my mind. This “thin place” notion has permeated so many thoughts since Dana and I arrived in Santiago de Compostela two weeks ago. I first read about it as an ancient Celtic belief mentioned in Father Kevin Codd’s book, To the Field of Stars where he elaborates on the ideas and beliefs of some that there is a thinner realm between earth and heaven in certain places.

I don’t necessarily believe in this idea as a physical property, but in a spiritual sense it’s undeniable. There are times and places when we feel closer to God than others.  How can this be, and what makes it so? After spending considerable time here in three out of the last four years, I know this is one such place, not because of where it is, but rather because of what it creates.

Watch someone as they conclude the final steps of a five hundred mile pilgrimage across some forty days. You will not see ego, pride, or braggadocio. Hugs and warm, lasting embraces replace high fives.

Much more evident is gratitude, humility, and tears of thanks. I get to watch this almost every day and it’s incredible.

It’s as if all guard comes down here. If but for the moment, we find the truest sense of self.

Watching I inevitably wonder, why can’t it be this way all the time?

I’m also focused on this idea of walking. So many places in the bible we find references to walking out our faith, or walking alongside God, or walking by faith, not by sight. It’s clear, especially in the new testament that walking was important to Jesus. Our life of learning and understanding more about God involves “walking” beside him. He does not pull, nor does he push, but He wants us to walk with Him. His invitation is, come along.

In a sense we’re on a pilgrimage to God’s kingdom. As we walk and listen I think we become more sensitive to God’s present reality in our lives. We’ll take detours, we’ll get lost at times, and we’ll learn from those missteps. But the goals is to just keep walking.

Where is your thin place?

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Hamtramck, Michigan – This is America.

Gracious hosts on holiday are allowing me the warm convenience of their home in Hamtramck, Michigan for our Detroit swing of the Pilgrim Strong book tour. This community is lovely, fascinating, and, in so many ways, shows our country at its best. A few quick facts from Wikipedia, and some photos from a morning walk:

  • Known in the 20th century as a vibrant center of Polish American life and culture, Hamtramck has continued to attract immigrants, especially Bangladeshis. In 2015 its city council became the first majority Muslim city council in the U.S.

Typical frontage on main street.

  • Hamtramck is named for the French-Canadian soldier Jean François Hamtramck who was the first American commander of Fort Shelby, the fortification at Detroit. It was originally known as Hamtramck Township.
  • Hamtramck was originally settled by German farmers, but Polish immigrants flooded into the area when the Dodge Brothersplant opened in 1914. Poles used to make up a large proportion of the population. It is sometimes confused with Poletown, a traditional Polish neighborhood, which used to lie mostly in the city of Detroit and includes a small part of Hamtramck. As of the 2010 American Community Survey, 14.5% of Hamtramck’s population is of Polish origin; in 1970, it was 90% Polish. Over the past thirty years, a large number of immigrants from the Middle East (especially Yemen), South Asia (especially Bangladesh), and Southeastern Europe (especially Bosnia and Herzegovina) have moved to the city. As of the 2010 American Community Survey, the city’s foreign born population stood at 41.1%, making it Michigan’s most internationally diverse city.

Typical Hamtramck neighborhood. Seems peaceful with lots of co-existence.

  • A recent survey found 26 native languages spoken by Hamtramck schoolchildren.
  • In 1997, the Utne Reader named Hamtramck one of “the 15 hippest neighborhoods in the U.S. and Canada” in part for its punk and alternative music scene, its Buddhist temple, its cultural diversity, and its laid back blue-collar neighborhoods.

Yard sign indicative of this community’s spirit. May I say, “Amen?”

Beef Gallaba from a Yemeni restaurant. Oh, so good.

After lunch, the kitchen chef brought me a cup of tea. I don’t know what’s in this stuff, but it’s easily the most fantastic cup of tea I’ve ever enjoyed. Nothing close.

Burek. Bought this for supper tonight. Basically a meat pie that originates somewhere along the Balkan peninsula. This one is stuffed with meat and cheese. How can you go wrong?

Finally, I noticed this on my host’s bookshelf and thought I should take a photo. Likely to never see my name next to HDT again. HAHA!

Ten Things I Think I Was Wrong About

  • Time alone  – Up to around age 40 I never wished to be alone. Always needed people around. I think it was part of the only-child upbringing. But since then, not only have I grown comfortable with alone time, there are seasons when it’s completely necessary. Time alone makes us better for all those around us and it reacquaints us with who we are and what we’re here for.

 

  • George W. Bush – He came during  a time when I viewed things from an Us vs. Them perspective. It’s a part of actually growing up, I think. We must always have a battle. Bush wasn’t the most intellectual president by a long stretch, but after the fact, he strikes me a decent man, flawed, imperfect, yet with a good heart. He made mistakes, but Bush had core beliefs. I think we long for leadership with core beliefs today.

 

  • Christianity – When a radio personality asked author Donald Miller to defend Christianity, he simply said no. “Stop ten people on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word Christianity, and they will give you ten different answers. How can I defend a term that means ten different things to ten different people?  Some of these ten will have had terrible experiences with Christianity. They may have been yelled at by a teacher in a Christian school, abused by a minister, or browbeaten by a Christian parent. To them, Christianity means something that I will not defend.” For the most part, Christianity is a contrived, evolving label. Some friends will call me a heretic at the very thought. But it’s true. I’m learning that I need not be the defender of Christianity. Jesus didn’t found Christianity. He founded the gospel because he IS the gospel and he IS the truth. The Christian label’s subversion is a big part of a modern-day problem. I’m no longer sure I need to be a Christian. I’d rather follow Jesus.

 

  • Rev. Billy Graham – It wasn’t uncommon for ABC to air Billy Graham’s massive revival events on prime time television during my youth.  My, how times have changed for ABC. Memory recalls they were generally aired live Tuesday nights at 7 p.m. and would interrupt Happy Days or Laverne & Shirley. I was just a kid. I never liked that Billy Graham took my TV time, plus his language sounded so harsh to a kid raised in a small-town Methodist Church. I grew to love Billy Graham over the years. What an extraordinary man and a life well lived.

 

  • Coffee — didn’t drink it for some forty-seven years. Now part of my daily routine.

 

  • Depression – I once believed it was a made-up excuse for the weak. People who’ve never had depression can’t understand it. Following my own experience, sharing it, and hearing from others who have also been there, I’d rank it as one of our top ten national epidemics. If you’re sitting in a room with a hundred people, 20-25 have experienced, or will experience, depression.

 

  • Being part of the least – As a kid I dreamed of becoming successful in business, owning a jet, and flying here and there to business meetings. I wanted to be somebody. Over time, as I’ve come to a greater understanding of the gospel, and honestly what fulfills me most, it is serving others. Maybe it’s cooking a big meal or helping people in time of need, or just making someone more comfortable. The great paradox of the gospel message is that the least become the opposite of how they are perceived. Greg Murtha’s Out of the Blue is a great read on this topic.

 

  • “Bird watchers” always seemed so uncool. So of course, over the years, I’ve now become an amateur birder. Birding is actually pretty cool and I’m hopeful that one year before I’m gone I can dedicate 365 days to a Big Year.

 

  • That when it comes to doors, you should always pray God will open them – This may sound weird, but over time, I’ve prayed much more frequently that God would close doors. I’m fond of the Jabez prayer that says “expand my territory,” but I also believe in prayers for closed doors.

 

  • That journalism was something I did as a fall back because writing was the only gift I had. I now realize that writing was always my calling and that the privilege of putting words before people’s eyes is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

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Pilgrim Strong Book Update

With Annie O’Neil who wrote the foreword to Pilgrim Strong.

You should write a book they said. It’ll be easy, they said.

And truth is after 12 years as beat newspaper reporter, three years as a congressional press secretary, and working in my own publishing business another seven years, it made sense that writing a book would be easy. It’s just a long story, after all. Fifty thousand words or so instead of a few hundred.

That is SO not true.

Completing Pilgrim Strong during the last 18 months has been just as much a test of endurance and humility as walking 500 miles across the Way of St. James itself, the background experience on which the memoir is penned. Some moments were amazing. Other times, walking away altogether came to mind.

There are many books available about the Camino de Santiago experience. In some regards we’re not plowing new ground here and it’s everyone’s right to publish a book. But I wanted to write a good book, different from most others, and one that would occasionally make the reader think about his or her own life and their place in the world. Maybe we’ll achieve that. We’ll know soon enough.

A few updates on where everything stands. Every writer makes a decision early on to publish in a traditional sense (with an agent and a publishing company or some combination thereof), or to self publish. I explored both options in depth. Ultimately, I decided to self publish Pilgrim Strong because I knew marketing the book and managing the publishing process would be enjoyable. Plus, it would all be a great learning experience. Plus, I’m impatient.

  • About the publishing process: That means realizing the goal of book in hand, and more importantly book for sale in late October, requires managing deadlines among four people – me, an editor, cover designer, and interior layout designer. If you start at the end and work backwards, get an understanding of what everyone needs and how much time, build in several weeks for frustrating screw ups, you can actually pull it off. We are knee-deep in deadlines for everyone now, and all parties are actively working.
  • That includes me and it might surprise you to know at this point the copy is not 100 percent complete.  The “takeaway” for the reader suggested in the final chapter and epilogue is important and I wanted to take an extra long time thinking it through. It’s in my head, and in rough notes on paper soon complete.  There are several “takeaway” themes in the end including: understanding our need to join something bigger than ourselves, drilling down to our core and having peace when we find it, understanding the nature of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the joy and adventure we find when we take the initiative to go looking for our great identity. I told you this isn’t the typical camino book.
  • In the midst of production, the marketing campaign is under way. Truth is, the marketing began a long time ago, even before I made the first step on pilgrimage. It just worked out that way. People who know me know how much I love marketing, and truth is my greatest fear is the marketing strategies will surpass the actual book quality. It’s a fear that nags me every day.

Released just this week, an amazing story from the Way of St. James.

  • It’s been a privilege to work with, and receive support from respected professionals in the publishing industry, and in the “pilgrim community.” Pilgrim Strong has testimonial endorsements from Patrick Gray and Justin

    Paul Stutzman’s Hiking Through

    Skeesuck, authors of the just-released I’ll Push You; Andrew Suzuki, documentary producer of Beyond the Way and Don’t Stop Walking; Paul Stutzman, author of Hiking Through; Kurt Koontz, author of A Million Steps; and David and Anna Dintaman Landis, co-authors of A Village to Village Guide to Hiking the Camino de Santiago.
  • It was a great thrill that my friend Annie O’Neil agreed to write the foreword. Annie is an author and documentary film maker. She directed and produced Phil’s Camino and co-produced Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. Her book is Everyday Camino with Annie.
  • Beth Jusino, pilgrim friend, writer, editor, and publishing professional has provided invaluable advice along the way, and without her willingness to act as a sounding board it wouldn’t have been pretty. Among other works, Beth is the author of The Author’s Guide to Marketing. She is currently publishing her own camino memoir. Beth’s giftedness promises it will be one of the very best in its genre.
  • Promotional trailers are currently in production. The first is scheduled for release on July 4. These are actually fun to imagine and create with the help of my friend Raney Rogers.
  • The cover is scheduled for completion next week. Still thinking about the best way to execute the big reveal, (understanding this is a bigger deal to me than anyone else, ha).

That’s a general recap of where things stand at the moment and with some luck Pilgrim Strong will be available on pre-sale in late October and for direct purchase the week of Thanksgiving.

As mentioned above, the awareness campaign begins now. There are lots of ways you can become a part of the group that helps spread the word from now until November. Drop me a line if you’re interested!

Buen camino for now.

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Chapter 31 – Home

“Travel does not exist without home. If we never return to the place we started, we would just be wandering, lost. Home is a reflecting surface, a place to measure our growth and enrich us after being infused with the outside world.” ~ Josh Gates

Few experiences will bring a person to a full knowledge of their senses as traveling alone. Maneuvering a far-away land will heighten your awareness at every level. It’s the thing I’ve learned over time that brings me most alive. It’s not so much the getting away from things as it is the freshness of new, uncharted experience. Traveling alone builds confidence, character, and offers a perspective on the world that is achieved no other way. Comfort zone boundaries are demolished and necessarily overcome when you have no idea what to do next, and no other choice than to figure it out. But there is nothing that stirs the blood as standing at the helm of your destiny.

Solo travel can also have a life-changing effect on how a person thinks about home.

After a walking a million and a half steps across Spain it was comforting and exhilarating thinking about the familiarity of home, but I was petrified of the conversations surely ahead in future social situations.

Somewhere over the ten-hour North Atlantic flight home it occurred to me. People are inevitably going to ask you to talk about this. And most of them are going to say, ‘Well, how was it, and what was it like?’ As surely as the sun rises, people would ask that question just as if it had been a long weekend vacation on the beach. I feared my any given trigger reaction to the empty questions.

All of a sudden there was a keen awareness of an inadequate fragility that goes with returning home after a hallowed and humbling experience that has changed you in ways too early to understand. Never speaking of it again would have been perfectly fine. That’s how it felt at the time, anyway.

***

Wheels down in Memphis concluded a remarkable seven-week odyssey. As the reverse engines roared I exhaled deeply blowing out what seemed every emotion God ever made.

Stepping out from the aisle seat on Row 10, I reached to the overhead bin and strapped on my backpack a final time. A text from Dana brought a wide smile. I’m here! The Delta captain stood at the cockpit’s entrance as passengers deplaned. I thanked him and shook his hand for the safe trip home.

The C concourse for arriving flights at Memphis International Airport is simple and uncomplicated with the feel of a regional terminal. From the furthest arrival gate it’s no more than a five-minute walk past security to the point where friends and family await weary travelers. At the last left turn there’s a final thoroughfare short enough you can see past the TSA checkpoint and make out faces in the eager crowd. Home always happens when I see my wife’s face there.

Just before the turn my hands went automatically to their familiar spot on the backpack straps and a sequence of images from the last seven weeks raced vividly through my mind. It was incredible what had happened really, and the fragility came full-bore.

Fifty yards down the concourse she was smiling the purest most familiar smile I know. It easily came to mind what a blessing she’d been and how much I loved every single thing about her. Reaching around her neck I began crying unexpectedly and couldn’t let go. It was so hard, I remember choking out and holding her tight. It was just so far, and so hard but I didn’t quit. The embrace must have lasted a minute as travelers walked politely around us. Home can be anywhere for me as long as Dana’s there.

At home, a long hot steamy shower with fresh smelling soap and a soft towel was a momentary rejuvenation from three consecutive days of non-stop travel, but short-lived from a desire for sleep in my own bed. For the next twelve hours things went black.

We avoided people for days and Dana kept me well insulated from the outside world, aware of my desire to stay clear of people and conversation. Eventually visitors came. “We want to hear all about it,” they said. The predictable sweeping nature of the question made me ill.

“You’ll have to ask some more specific questions,” Dana jumped in. “I don’t think he really knows how to answer the big open-ended questions yet.” She saved me.

The truth is that most people ask these questions only for the sake of polite social chit chat. It’s required decorum, and the only thing we know. They really don’t care, and it’s not really their fault because they could never understand. Some have labeled it the Seinfeld Effect. You’re telling a story answering someone’s question about one of the most unique experiences of a lifetime, and in five minutes, they’re staring off into space, completely uninterested, wondering which Seinfeld rerun will air next. This happened countless times and it’s one of several reasons the story of pilgrimage is so personal and private.

In some ways I was completely prepared for what came next. In others, I’m still figuring it out today.