Thank you, dear God, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough. Thank you for the rain. And thank you for the chance to wake up in three hours and go fishing: I thank you for that now, because I won’t feel so thankful then. ~ Garrison Keillor
With a life expectancy of 78.8 years, and using estimates suggesting we hear about 30,000 words every day, most Americans’ ears will take in some 900,000,000 words in a lifetime. It must surely mean there’s something special about the few phrases and tidbits that push through the clutter in our instant daily recall.
I still hear certain choice phrases my father frequently used, and recall the one time nearly 40 years ago when he uncharacteristically broke out in a verse of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, as we chopped cotton on an oppressively sultry Arkansas morning.
Never forgotten is the moment my young, always dramatic, attention-loving, middle-child daughter saw a pro-life billboard on the highway just as she was learning to read, and cited it out loud for us all, so sure of herself as I drove, yet misreading, “Life begins at constipation.”
Lonesome Dove, the television mini-series based on Larry McMurtry’s novel of the same name is so special to me, I know every line of the dialogue.
But it’s a recollection from an intentional meeting I uncharacteristically arranged during a bout with depression just a few years ago that’s helped broadly shape so much recent thinking, even if it is a daily challenge, still.
Dean Jacobs’ name regularly popped into my social media friend suggestions until one day I took a look. The algorithms linked us through a mutual interest in Ecuador, I’m sure. Among his credits, Dean’s traveled the 4,000 miles of the Amazon River basin, brings attention to environmental causes, and has a passion for helping the youth of an Ecuadorian indigenous tribe called the Achuar. He’d dumped life in the corporate world to pursue these things, and that got my attention.
His current adventure would bring him close to home on a canoe trip from the Mississippi River’s source in Lake Itasca, Minnesota to its terminus at the Gulf of Mexico. I dropped him a line and offered to buy a nice lunch in Memphis when he passed through. He wrote back, quickly accepted, and we targeted a tentative date.
Everything about Dean fascinated me. He drove an old, compact pickup truck nearing 200,000 miles, enjoyed successful careers in higher education and the pharmaceutical industry and dropped it all before heading out on a 22-month adventure taking him through 28 countries. Beyond traveling, he dedicates time educating stateside children toward a greater understanding of a big world.
There, in the West Memphis Cracker Barrel, we discussed world affairs and talked philosophy. As we neared the end of a late lunch, Dean shared an idea that made me glad I’d gone beyond a comfort zone and reached out to a total stranger during a time when I was pretty down.
He said, “I’ve learned that depression and gratitude cannot co-exist in the same space.”
I’d heard similar sentiments, but Dean really nailed the idea for a visual learner like me. And while some of us never completely conquer depression, the visual picture of gratitude pushing depression outside a physical space makes a world of difference in how I see certain things.
As much as anything maybe, it’s had an effect on how I pray.
The truth is, I’m a lousy warrior when it comes to focused, intentional, purposed prayer. While I feel as though I’m in a constant, companion-like conversation with God all day, most every day, and have good discipline with daily Bible study, my prayer life is less than I know He desires. And I’d like that to change.
It’s not that my prayers were so wrong for so long, as they were out of order. What I found is that I’d jump into a prayer and ask God to protect my children, and keep my family safe, and help me be more of this, and less of that. It was a laundry list of things I needed Him to do. And more times than not, I left out the most important thing. I left out my gratitude.
What’s most important to me now, much through Dean’s revelation, is a genuine acknowledgment of God’s glory, and grateful thanks for keeping, and using me for His purpose. Above all, I just want to give thanks.
There’s nothing about the Thanksgiving holiday I don’t completely love. Early in the week I love buying a cart full of groceries, oblivious to the cost, sparing no expense for all the perfect ingredients. I love waking up at 3 in the morning thinking through the strategic plan for how it must go, chopping the onions, celery, organizing the seasonings, all the prep work.
All morning, satisfying holiday aromas mingle and dance together as music blares through the house and I move back and forth from cutting board to oven to sink. And as with other monumental tasks that seem so ominous in the beginning , there’s the moment late in the morning, an hour before the first guest arrives, when you know you’ve conquered the assignment. It’s like mile 25 in the marathon. When lunch is served precisely at 1 just as the invite said, it’s a would-be chef’s sweetly savored victory.
Then, just as it has for centuries, food on a table brings people together in an especially communal way. There is happiness, peace and deep-down satisfaction. There is football, naps and complaints of gluttonous indulgence. Then, supper, of course. It’s an exhausting day, but I love it so.
The original plan called for my Thanksgiving day arrival in Santiago de Compostela, and for more than three weeks I was on schedule to do just that. The reality was that I spent most of Thanksgiving day walking alone, hobbling slowly in a heavy mist, missing home, and three days behind plan. Once again, I hoped I’d catch up with my walking partners somewhere in Melide, but hurt too much to put in extra effort finding them if it wasn’t easy.
Hungry, a bit irritable, and entering the city’s outskirts around 2 p.m., I stopped for a late lunch at a cafe where I was the only guest the entire hour. A plate of grilled chicken, papas fritas and a fresh salad was close enough to a traditional Thanksgiving, I reckoned. It was surprisingly fresh and satisfying, lifting my spirits for the final walk toward Melide’s centro.
A text from Aida an hour later gave me a general idea of my partners’ location, and after more city walking than I intended, I found her and Naomi checking in at an albergue on the far side of town.
Melide, Spain carries an international reputation for its pulpo. Some United States restaurants will have octopus from no other place. The Way takes pilgrims through Melide’s main thoroughfare where they encounter a walking tour featuring some of the world’s finest pulperias, many of which are open-air. Aromas just walking down the street are an epicurean’s delight. I was enticed by it all, but too out of the holiday spirit to much care.
Luckily, Naomi had a keen understanding for how opportunities like those in Melide can lift a pilgrim’s spirit. After showers, bunk selections and a longer than normal post-hike rest, she insisted we go out for a culinary experience in what makes Melide famous. My heart said no, but somehow the mouth said yes, and we began an early-evening stroll in search of our Thanksgiving dinner.
There’s almost nothing I love more than when a meal is surprisingly excellent. At the Garnacha Pulperia, Naomi, Aida and I enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal I’ll never forget. The pulpo was spicy sweet and so fresh you could still taste the Bay of Biscay. Hot caldo gallego and stewed potatoes gave comfort. There was a green salad with young asparagus so tender and crunchy, it delighted every sense. And pimientos de padron addictive enough you could eat them by the dozen. It was all served family style and we passed plates, served one another, poured wine, laughed, shared stories just as millions of other families did that same day. Family comes in so many forms.
I said my prayers that night, thankful for a simple experience I knew I’d always remember. And from a top bunk wrapped tightly in a sleeping bag, I asked Him if he’d walk beside me just three more days.
“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” ~ John Ruskin
Certain personality types, of which I’m one, carry an exceptionally low tolerance for complaint. If you’re unhappy within your circumstances, change is within your power, and is no one else’s responsibility. I’d be friends with a man who got knocked to the floor trying every day before I’d cozy up with a successful grumbler. And the Camino, I’d decided, early on, was a No Crybaby Zone. For me, that was among its greatest attractions.
But as our family now trekked on to Villafranca, I was increasingly tested by my own No Crybaby philosophy.
The weather’s a great unknown just about wherever you are, but especially in a place that’s unfamiliar, and one with so many variables that affect it. Mountain elevations, nearby ocean currents, and during November, a rapid transition in the season affects weather moving across Galicia. It was only a few hundred miles back when I observed a general sense of frenzied activity as families throughout the Basque country prepared firewood for winter’s onset. People were splitting and stacking cords of firewood everywhere. You could only imagine how brutally cold the weeks ahead might become. But you could sense it in the feverish exertion at almost every business and home.
My Camino weather experience was marked by consistent, extended weather cycles. It was basically two weeks of wet, damp, cool, followed by two weeks of brilliantly clear, sunshiny skies, followed by a final two weeks of wet, damp, frigid cold. Numbing as it was, it apparently wasn’t cold enough yet for most albergues to flip the heat switch for the night. You never really got warm. I returned home with an all-new appreciation for heated blankets.
As we approached Villafranca, I’d already been cold for four days. Aida walked ahead with our friend Sebastian, and Naomi and I kept a slower pace behind. It didn’t help that my left shin now hurt so much it literally felt as if the bone was bruised, and I could actually see the hemorrhaging more each day. I now felt the onset of a fever but kept it to myself. In the silence, Naomi knew something wasn’t right. She knew about the leg pain, but not the fever. As was her tendency, and with Camino wisdom, she attempted to distract the aggravation with some new, philosophical conversation.
“So, tell me what you’re proud of,” she said from nowhere.
“What?” I answered, knowing exactly what she was doing, but purposefully not acknowledging it was a decent idea.
“What you’re proud of. Talk about it,” she said.
It was one of those Camino moments when I really stopped to think. Proud? The answer would’ve been different in a different time.
I’d held several “dream jobs,” run my own business, understood what it took to make money, and even wielded some influence at times, but it all seemed so irrelevant now. When it all fell apart one day, I’d literally experienced the end of myself. Complete brokenness. And I thought about a bible verse I’d studied a few days earlier.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
It’s easily misunderstood. Jesus’ words from His sermon on the mount aren’t necessarily about the poor, per se, but the poor in spirit. The broken. The ones who’ve realized that we, ourselves, just aren’t enough and never will be. It’s not about us. And so after walking another half mile or so, I had Naomi’s answer.
“I’m proud that after all this time I’ve found peace in the belief that what God most sees, is the heart, not my good intentions or even my failures, but what’s in my heart. Because I know what’s in my heart, and I’m good with that, and I think He is, too,” I said. “In fact, that’s my only hope. I’m proud to know that kind of peace.”
I’d never really thought about that until Naomi asked. I think it was an unexpected defining moment that shaped how I’d consider my Camino experience after it was all over, and for the months ahead.
We caught Aida and Sebastian at the entrance to Ave Fenix, a donativo albergue run by Camino legend Jesús Jato in Villafranca del Bierzo. Jesús is a long-time hospitalero, artist, poet, builder and healer. He’s known for his genuine concern and care for pilgrims on the Path.
(A video from the morning after. I was so thankful to be okay.)
As we arrived, it was the worst I’d felt since leaving home.
I could now strangely feel my heartbeat pulsing through a twisted, discolored knot in my left shin. Every step was painful. In the moment, though, it was easier not to think about it because of the fever. The achy feeling a fever brings was coming on fast, and for the first time on this trip I was worried about tomorrow. I’m well-acquainted enough with how my body works to know it was going to be a long night.
Jesús sent Naomi and Aida to one housing area, me to another. All I could think about was bed, and the unlikely hope that hours of rest would make a big difference in how I felt. Without radical change I’d go nowhere tomorrow. Since I was a kid, fevers have always wiped me out.
I couldn’t bear the thought of expending another ounce of energy, but knew I’d rest better clean. It was the first time on Camino I’d encountered a shower in an outdoor facility – and there was no door – and it was cold outside – and I was miserable. This was going to be bad.
Organizing my clean clothes and towel for a quick transition, I dropped my dirty clothes and turned on the only faucet that worked. Moments passed, to what seemed five minutes and the water never warmed. An ice-cold shower, in a cold, exposed room with no heat and a fever. Pure misery.
Still mostly wet in a pair of boxers and a t-shirt, I gathered my things and walked quickly back outside to our bunked quarters, threw my sleeping bag over me and took the fetal position. An hour passed, maybe two, chills set in, and I was shivering non-stop praying someone would eventually come check on me.
About that time, Naomi came in wondering if I was joining everyone for dinner. I told her I was in bed for the night and asked if she’d grab a blanket and throw across me. When she realized the severity of how bad I felt, she got several blankets and pressed them down on me tight to create some warmth. I told her I was sorry to be such a baby and so much trouble, but thanked her for being so nice. She said a prayer and asked God to take care of me, and the chills eventually subsided. After dinner, I’m sure she came back to check on me, but if she did, I never knew it. What a miserable night. By God’s grace, I had a friend who cared.
Thirteen hours later I awoke and couldn’t believe how much better I felt. It wasn’t a complete transformation by any stretch, but comparatively, I was much improved. I dressed and walked through the courtyard to the kitchen area where Jesús was preparing coffee with fruits, breads and jams. He was concerned for me. Apparently there was dinner discussion among the group about the Estados Unidos pilgrim who’d been so sick.
I was moving slow, but moving, and it was so much more than I expected. It’s hard to remember when I’ve been so thankful.
We organized for the day, bound for the long climb to O Cebreiro and our official passage into Galicia. There was a heavy snow warning ahead. We had no idea what adventure lie ahead during the next two days.
(Blogger’s Note: In the hiking community, a side trail, or spur, is a footpath that wanders off the main trail and simply leads to another scenic vista or practical destination. It’s the metaphorical equivalent of journalism’s sidebar. Closing in on the manuscript draft of my book, #PilgrimStrong, I’m incorporating a “side trail” (a different, but related) short story at the end of each primary chapter. I think it kind of breaks the story up and adds some variety. Hopefully, it works. Here’s a “side trail” preview excerpt I wrote today.)
At 33, I left a potentially promising career in the frenzied political world for one more structured, predictable and family friendly. It was that structure that soon got me in trouble and ultimately bestowed a great lesson.
As state communications director for a member of congress I enjoyed the freedom to do just about whatever needed doing to make things work. Most rules, wherever they existed, were completely gray, and I knew how to work them. They were much more black and white in my new state-regulated job as a higher education fundraiser. Rules abounded.
When we needed some giveaway promotional t-shirts for an internal fund drive I called up a buddy I trusted and knew would give me a quality product on time. He said, “What do you need?” I told him. He said no problem. I said, “Done.” We committed to the deal and I sent him a check for $15,000. There wasn’t as much as a handshake.
Just a few days later a trusted secretary brought attention to my grievous error. The structured, predictable and friendly government rules required all requisitions above $1,000 go out for at least three competitive bids. It meant the money I’d committed would have to come from our private foundation, rather than our state-supported budget. In short, it was a $15,000 screw up. Yes, my bad.
There was no hiding. I’d completely exposed my inexperience and had to tell the boss. He was newer to his job than I was to mine. We didn’t know one another well yet, and he scared me a bit. I walked in his office to take a beating that would’ve been well deserved and told him exactly what happened. I said it was my fault. I said I was sorry, and didn’t really know what to do.
He leaned back in his chair, clasped his hands and was silent for one of the most intensely painful moments of my life. And then he said this:
“Well, you won’t make that mistake again, will you?”
“No sir,” I said, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it never did.
“I’ll take care of it. Get back to work,” he said. And so he forgave my debt.
It was the most unexpected, underserved grace I’ve received in a lifetime of mistakes. And it’s a lesson that’s served me well.
(Blogger’s Note: This is the first in a new series of short videos I’ll occasionally publish on the blog. Please feel free to share your own thoughts/experiences as you like. I always enjoy hearing from readers and viewers.)
(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.
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.