Camino to Morocco, Chapter 1

Having only packed two pair of trousers for my two week trip to Morocco, I was less than thrilled, but the Irish stewardess clearly was, as she doubled over in laughter.  This was contagious and instantly about six rows were all in stitches as I stood to reveal my purple crotch, drenched with Virgin Airline’s finest vintage, and now running down both legs.  “Laugh it up, Ginger!” I encouraged her, who was still giggling uncontrollably, “I know, I know, it’s all good craic!”  Katie informed us all that she would promptly wet her pants if she didn’t stop laughing, and the other attendant agreed, as if this was very normal and typical.

This is just a teaser.  If you (for some reason) want to follow this year’s “Camino to Morocco,” please go to my other blog: click here, and don’t forget to click the “follow” button, over there, as well as “like,” and leave your comments and suggestions!

If you want to scroll down, you’ll see, in reverse chronological order, last years Camino to the shrine at Lourdes, and, several pages down, 2013’s infamous Camino de Santiago.

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Camino to Morocco, Chapter 27

May 17th, My Darkest Day

Last night I lay in bed, unable to sleep, blaming the heat and loud Arabic chatting from the adjacent room. But the real reason was clear. My plan to go to Chefchaouen tomorrow was absurd, and only an excuse. So many people had told me how beautiful and quaint this little village was, almost like in Switzerland, and I just “had to go there.”  But this wasn’t why I was here. I wasn’t a tourist, on holiday. I was, like Dr. Tom in “The Way,” here, on “family business.” I hope to someday return for those reasons, but it will be with my wife, and certainly not on May 17th.

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What I needed to do was to back to ALIF (the Arabic Language Institute in Fes) again to talk to Cullen’s Professor. We had met, earlier in the week, but not really talked.

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I needed to sit in Cullen’s chair in room 100 again and see “his” classroom.

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I needed to sit in the courtyard and drink coffee and eat almond cake. I needed to wander around the university library and gaze in amazement.

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I needed to eat a camel-burger and drink a chocolate shake at the Clock Cafe. I needed to drink mint tea at the corner table in the cafe with pool tables. I came here to see the world through Cullen’s eyes. One last time, for him, with him.

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But I didn’t want to. It would mean saying goodbye, it would mean that I was checking these things off, and throwing my clump of dirt onto the casket. I didn’t want to, but I needed to.

I jumped out of bed, and swung open the door to again tell Allal that there had again been a change in itinerary. We are NOT going to Chefchaouen tomorrow.

And so we did all those things, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

On the last stop of the day, Allal had run across the street to digitally capture the moment. I sat at the cafe sipping mint tea, and he shouted to make the peace sign, because he knew our Cullen always did this in pictures.
And now, the end of the day, for some reason, and it was always unpredictable, I melted.

Allal pleaded with me not to cry. Today was the first time this year’s journey had immersed me here. I’d been in Morocco over a week, but this was the first time I would visit that place inside where I had such little control. After almost three years, I was, for the most part, in a really good place. But sometimes, and it was hard to predict the catalyst, the emotions would let loose. I had spent the day vicariously as my son, seeing these things with the same blue eyes we had gotten from my father. We tasted the same mint in every cup of tea, and overwhelming cumin and other spices in the food that was so different from what we had both eaten at the same table. We were drenched with same sweat, and burned with the same sand. We were feeling the same cultural amazement, and now had heard the same professor in the same room.

“Please, Mr. William, please don’t be so sad. Please don’t be always crying and sad!” This actually caught me a little off guard, because I wasn’t “always” crying, and certainly didn’t think I had been acting sadly. These moments were now few and far between. And even now, I wasn’t blubbering and wailing like I used to do. It was just a few tears running down my cheek, and probably wouldn’t even have been noticed under my sunglasses if I hadn’t started wiping them away.

“Cullen is with Allah, and it’s a beautiful thing, a wonderful place!” I’d had quite a few conversations about religion in the El Harrami household, and it was touching that he now felt comfortable saying such things in an attempt to console me.  “He is at salam, (peace).”

One of those conversations with Allal included his sister-in-law Nisrine, who knew well the observance of Islamic law. And not just the ritual observance, this family seemed to have dug pretty deeply, and knew in their heart that their’s was the true religion. So, I’m not so sure they were thrilled with the place I was willing to exit our hour’s-long conversation. If I was such a truth seeker, why would I be content with my “false religion?”

I suppose “turnabout is fair play.” Being reasonably well versed in Catholic apologetics, I was used to responding to concerns from Protestants dispelling misconceptions about the RC tradition. At the end of the day, we Christians really do agree on much more than we disagree on, and certainly the most important tenants.

In fact, my then evangelical wife Sharon and I had had this very conversation on our first date. She was incredulous that I thought my faith tradition was right and others’ were wrong. Not that it’s a perfect church, precisely because I (and other humans like me) are part of it; rather I hold that She’s been guided by the Holy Spirit through apostolic succession for 2000 years. If I didn’t believe my faith was the “true” one, I’d most certainly be somewhere else.

Anyway, so here I am, a guest in a home who thinks any reasonable person who takes the time to learn about the prophet and his writings, couldn’t possibly come to any other conclusion. In their minds, they were as “right” as I am. The fact that I have all sorts of rebuttals for Christianity, and “gotcha” questions for my Muslim family was irrelevant. Perhaps we were both, in our hearts, as good, as faithful, and as loving, as we were called to be. Perhaps our very same God had revealed Himself differently to different cultures, in a way most appropriate to them, and their customs, and traditions.

I sat silently there with Allal for a few moments, for a few reasons.

I did need to recompose, but I also rather enjoyed hearing my new friend, who had never even met my son, be so confident that he was in paradise with Allah.  The phrase Muslims almost always use to greet includes, “Salam,” which means “Peace,” or “God’s Peace.”  This struck me a bit, since Cullen often lifted his hand with the peace sign in photos.

Allal looked directly into my eyes as I lifted my sunglasses to wipe them again, “I know this, my brother, because he is your son. He must be so much like you. You are so loving and such a good person, my brother.” This was a bit much for me also, so I lowered my glasses again, took a final sip of mint tea, and said, “OK, let’s go.”

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And so I had done what I had intended to do. Cullen had had quite a “reversion,” a return to his baptized faith tradition when he had been here in Morocco. He had returned with a faith I was am in awe of.

And now I felt it too. He’d told me that every movement of every day he had felt proselytized, even assaulted in faith by so many here. I certainly hadn’t felt that way, but it was easy to see how a 18 year old could feel this way. And you had to be awe-struck, and even admire, their faith. Five times each day we would hear the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. For some reason (I’ll address later), I wasn’t allowed to (visibly) be present to view worship in a mosque, but I found this most interesting, even compelling.

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It’s been called the most beautiful sound in the world, when the muezzin calls to prayer. I would differ in my preference, but I kind of get it. To be so focused on God, and doing what you feel is your reason for being here is a beautiful thing. it’s not all about me, it’s about why I’m here.

I saw so many things during “this year’s Camino.” This has been a culture shock x 10. On any of several occasions I saw things that would have made my son return from this place so changed, so deep, so much better than me.

I am thankful for so many things, and so many people – and you all know who you are. This has been quite a ride, and I am definitely better for it. Much love.

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I realize this is kind of a sad post, and i apologize for that. Lots of good, happy, and funny posts still to come. May 17 will likely always be like this. Sorry.

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“As-salamu alaykum”

Pounding the Door in Morocco, My Continuing Camino

As the dreaded 17th of May, our darkest day, draws near, I’ve been asked multiple times where this year will take me. My friends and clients just seem to know that the middle of May will find me on a sabbatical, of sorts.  In 2013 I hiked west from St. John Pied de Port, France to Santiago, Spain, the infamous Camino de Santiago.  This pilgrimage was depicted in the Martin Sheen movie called The Way, which my son Cullen and I watched the day before he would leave us forever.

2014 again found me at St. John Pied de Port, but last year I walked east to Lourdes.  This famous shrine, where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette proved most fitting.  Who could know my grief more than the mother of Jesus after having lost her own son?

These are pretty clearly aligned with my journey and my faith, but why on Earth would I travel to one of the least Christian countries on the planet?  How could this piece possibly fit into the puzzle called my life?  Why would Fez be relevant to Cullen, my family, or my faith, on this journey that I often refer to as my “Camino?”

The year before he went to China, Cullen participated in another international study semester in order to garner the credit hours necessary for a “minor” degree in Arabic.  This would accompany his minor in French, and dual majors, in Spanish and Chinese.  Bear in mind, this was at age 19. William Cullen Klein would graduate from Florida State University in two years with four degrees, after finishing high school in two years, concurrently completing his AA through dual enrollment.

Although FSU did not have an official class placed in Morocco that Summer semester, Cullen fearlessly agreed to go it alone.  He was driven to get the credit hours only this trip would provide, so he would graduate with his four degrees, on the rushed schedule he had so carefully crafted.  But why was he in such a hurry? It was as if he knew his own timeline.

Cullen Climbing Stairs     Cullen leaving

Sorry, but when I start talking about my son, I just seem to go on and on and on.  And so, since I never tire of doing that, let’s do it some more.  This is an excerpt from my CRHP weekend retreat witness:

I loved my daughters more than life itself, but a man wants a son… On my own 34th birthday, William Cullen Klein was born.

(originally about 30 more minutes of my bragging about him here, and then:)

Adolescence was upon us and so was fear, confusion, and anger. This, of course, was manifest as rebellion. Good times and kind words were a distant memory.  The ball games, camp-outs, and fishing trips, dozens of concerts together, tossing the ball in the back yard, and even getting our Tae Kwan Do black-belts together – these were all a lifetime ago.  He hated me, my values, my Church, my house.

His unfortunate every other weekend with us served up dinners together with my new wife and two additional siblings, a midnight curfew, breath check, and of course, mandatory Sunday church. 

I realized that much of his behavior and emotions were from confusion and anxiety over those issues I’ve written about previously.

For years, I would kneel and beg God to remove his heavy burden. I prayed constantly, and made all sorts of offers, if Jesus would just show some of that compassion that I had heard so much about and make my son “normal.”

But I tried so hard for him to realize I didn’t reject him. I loved him so very much and I wanted him to know that it was truly unconditional. And I was so scared for him. 

So, about the time Cullen turned 17, I stopped begging for God to make him “normal,” and being angry at Him for being so cruel.  I began to recognize that I have a big God. A huge God that I could never begin to comprehend. A magnificent, omnipotent God who had made no mistakes, and is in control.

And so I started to simply pray for Cullen. That Jesus would meet him where he was. He had made Cullen the way he was for a reason, and that he was an incredible person, so smart and so beautiful, inside and out. And so I prayed that the creator of the universe would reach out and embrace my son

He loves him. He understands him. Through Christ, He IS the personification of love. And so, I prayed simply that they find each other. That God’s will be done.

Cullen spent the summer after his sophomore year studying on an exchange program in Morocco. I warned him about “you know what” before he left, and in that culture, well… I emphasized how much I loved him and wanted him back alive. He rolled his eyes, but knew both of those things were true. I prayed for him daily at Mass.

I was shocked at how God answered my prayers as soon as I changed the context of my prayers. I was amazed at the son that returned from Morocco.  Had his orientation changed?  Of course not, but it no longer mattered.  They had met.

“Dad, I looked out from the airplane in Barcelona, and you’ll never believe how glad I was to see a cross at the top of a church. He said every person, every day tried to convince him that Islam was the only way to God.  And so he kneeled with them in prayer several times each day. (They just didn’t know he was praying silently those prayers that he once found boring and pointless.)

My new Cullen wanted to go to Mass with us; he even had us pick him when he spent weekends at his mother’s. He went to adoration of the Eucharist, and truly knelt in prayer for hours. Not only had “they met,” Cullen had has a relationship with the creator of the Universe that I will forever be in awe of.  We’d stay up late discussing God, and Scripture, and theology. I reminded him that the word disciple means “learner,” not blind follower. Dig deep and learn about the real, historic Jesus, his teachings and how and why He loves us.”

So now, my dear friends, you see why Morocco is calling to me.

Cullen had a persona that was magnetic, and so even though he had no Florida classmates on the Fez University campus, he was adopted by new friends from Chicago.  I had no knowledge of this until Katie approached me after Cullen’s accident.  She and Victoria, and so many other kind loving beautiful kids from DePaul University reached out to my son and made him part of their own group.

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Cullen at DePaul table

Cullen had told me that he made friends with some classmates, and how funny it was, because he enjoyed talking with that upper-midwest, Chicago, almost Sarah Palin accent.  When he talked that way he had us laughing so hard we cried at the dinner table.  We still do, and although we’re not laughing so hard, they’re still very fond memories.

Morocco is the most religious country in the world.  99% of the country claims to be Sunni Muslim, the small remainder are Sufi Muslim, with about 360,000 Catholics, 50,000 Protestants, and 8,000 Jews.  Morocco is, in fact, the most Western of the African Muslim nations, both geographically and politically.  Religious diversity is allowed and encouraged, although it is still a capital crime for a citizen to convert away from Islam.

Katie and Victoria have planned quite an itinerary for me.  They’ve prepared a few phrases to learn (which I have on flashcards in my pocket), a history of the culture and relevant current events, and contacted a host family for me to stay with.  They’ve even arranged a guide for me to translate and take me to the University in Fez and places where they went with Cullen.

Unfortunately he was so fluent in Arabic and French that he was the only student placed in a family that spoke no English, so I’ll not be staying with them.  However, stopping to break bread with that family will undoubtedly be one of the first stops my “guided tour.”

We don’t really appreciate what we have and hold dearest until we feel a life without.  And so perhaps that’s why my son rediscovered his Christian faith in one of the world’s least Christian places.  I have no doubt that’s a device our Lord used as he relentlessly knocked on the door of his heart.  I imagine the intensity turning to a fist pounding on that door when the muezzin chanted the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, five times each day, until he opened it.

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“Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks. (Luke 12:36)

 

And this will be consolation I hold dearest, deep in my own heart.    I have so much to be thankful for.

I leave on May 5th, and return May 19th.

Please keep me in your prayers –

Much Love.

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Leaving Peter

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Waymarker on the Camino de Santiago

 

It was early morning on the 8th day of my hiking the Camino de Santiago, and, as I approached a group of three ladies, I could tell they were speaking English.  This wasn’t entirely unusual, as about a third of the pilgrims I encountered spoke my language, but I hadn’t understood anyone since dinner the night before.

As I closed the distance behind them, I realized they were Irish, speaking with quite a brogue.  We introduced ourselves, with the typical small-talk, and they inquired as to whether or not I´d been to Ireland.  Well of course these stories of  Camille, my oldest daughter being a many time American Irish dance champion, with the resultant trips overseas, including Ireland came out.  Soon we were discussing our friends Donica and Sheena (I never can get the Gaelic spelling of their names right, so I won´t even try), who own a B & B in Roosky, in Rosscommon.

As we chatted about such stuff, we walked through a typical small town in rural Spain, with the one beautiful village Church crumbling.  Of course this then became a topic of discussion including the magnificent cathedrals throughout the place in much need of repair, and the consolation it brought to see at least a few of them being restored.

I made the passing remark that the churches in ruins were perhaps but a commentary of what has happened to Christianity throughout Europe and beyond.  The Irish ladies, from a wonderful island that had provided perhaps more priests than any other part of the world, then commented that the church scandals had really damaged people´s faith, as well as any support of religion whatsoever, especially in Ireland.

The light-bulb, of course, then went on.  I pointed out that throughout life, our leaders – our parents, elected officials, scout leaders, friends, mentors, and yes even our priests and ministers are in fact “waymarkers.” They serve to guide us, to point the proper direction, to guide the way.  The problem is that all of these “waymarkers” are simply human beings, with all the weaknesses, frailties, and sinful tendencies that all of society, all of us have as humans – it is the “human condition.”  Not to belittle the scandals, or any sin for that matter.

***

The Camino de Santiago is an assortment of routes that lead to the Cathedral of San-tiago (Spanish for St. James), where St. James the Greater, one of Jesus three closest companions was buried.  Along these routings are markers to let the pilgrims (perigrinos) know that they, indeed, are on the right road.  Most of the times the markers consist of a small, simple yellow arrow, painted on the street, curb or side of a building.  This instills much confidence after hours of hiking that the weary traveler is traveling in the right direction.  Outside the cities, towns, and villages the waymarkers are constructed of concrete, small pillars about three feet tall, with the symbol of the Camino attached as a ceramic tile to its side.  These are strategically placed to greatly aid the perigrino by confraternity volunteers, and are greatly appreciated for the same reason.  You come to expect these at regular intervals, every few miles, and start to feel lost and question your path when you haven’t seen one recently.  Its rather easy to daydream, or get lost in thought, contemplation and prayer and miss an indicator which may have indicated a turn, for instance.

Most of the waymarkers along the road were in excellent condition, well maintained with fresh “clam-shell” icons, and a coat of paint.  A few had a few cracks, but were generally in acceptable shape, and served the purpose of guiding us in the correct direction.  However more than a few were in dis-repair, crumbling, and a couple in a sad pile of rubble on the ground.

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Crumbled Waymarker on the Camino de Santiago

 

And so the metaphor seemed obvious.  Because our way-markers are also human, they can crumble, like we can, and often do.  “Still,” Irish Eileen exclaimed, she’d “not be going back into a church anytime soon.”

“Fair enough, I replied, “but perhaps this gives us some thoughts to ponder.  The fact that our way-markers crumble doesn´t stop our journey, only to throw our hands up and quit.  Furthermore, we leave the paths ourselves, even when they’re well marked, by not paying close attention, or thinking we know a better way.  “Eileen laughed and muttered under her breath, “Something tells me you’re no longer talking about Spain.”

“Of course I am, but not ONLY the Camino de Santiago, also the Camino de Life!”  Just a few days ago, I left the marked path because someone from Germany told me there was a more direct way.  I left what I had known and trusted because I had heard there was a better path.  Soon I was on a cow path that lead to a stream, and I had to turnaround and look for a way back to ‘the way.’  That was an honest mistake, probably my misunderstanding.  But some people even lead us astray intentionally, because they don’t even think there even exists a final destination, and to them, it’s all about today, having fun, screwing everyone along the way.”

“And sometimes those we trust the most, just let us down.  Our parents fail in their marriages, or have addictions; our friends really aren’t; and those who we look up to just fail.  Because they’re all humans, they’re screw ups like us.”

“Although I doubt he coined it, a famous Jesuit retreat-master named John Powell SJ, shared this advice:

You don’t leave Peter because of Judas!

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“So you’re right, it’s not just about being here in Spain.  It’s about being fully alive.  Everywhere we turn, we’re told to enjoy the moment, you only live once – ‘It’s all about me!’  Well, it’s not ‘All about me!’

“An ‘All about me’ attitude creates a selfish, entitled mentality.  This draws us away from the path, and gives those in power license to use people, and destroy lives.  The President that cheats, the priest or teacher pedophile, the addicted spouse.  Then the victims and observers, ironically, take their own ‘All about me’ attitude that they get to make their own rules, because someone they once trusted was frail, and human, and made mistakes, even horrible ones.”

“Of course we expect our leaders to have a higher standard.  And when they look at themselves in the mirror, I´m sure many are disappointed in themselves.  As I am many times.  As we all are, if we´re being honest.”

“Anyway, I’ve gotten off the path lots of times, and now I really feel like I’m back on it.  Look down, this road still leads to Santiago, there will be twists and turns along the road, with the need to have guidance when there is an obstacle.  The Church and all she offers, the Word of God, the Sacrifice of the Mass, the social gathering strengthening and supporting each other.  The fact that the markers sometimes crumble is irrelevant to the goal, the desired endpoint.  It’s not just about “me,” it’s about “God and me,” and because of that, its about, “You and me.”

They smiled politely, and said they’d be stopping for some lunch now, realizing I wasn’t going to join in the bashing of the monster they had encountered.  Not that we shouldn’t fight the monster, and we certainly must protect our children, but it’s important to have perspective, and realize that monster is everywhere, in some form.  Judas isn’t always the dark sinister figure in the shadows, often he looks back in the mirror.

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Those words were easy to say.  When the rubber meets the road, it’s often a bit more difficult.  My children have never been abused, or raped, or even taken advantage of.

But we’ve all been disappointed, and let down.  Just a few days ago, someone that I’ve grown to love and trust, and help me discern lots of important decisions acted in a way that, at the time, felt hurtful.  My human side reeled, and I felt indignant.  Then I did my best to stand back and learn those lessons that life has been trying to teach me.  These are still my friends, and have made decisions they thought were correct.

We all make decisions based on the information we have in front of us.  Seldom do we intend to hurt our friends, and so, in turn, we should give that benefit of the doubt to those we’ve invested our trust in. Sometimes a course of events appears to turn in a direction that we hadn’t expected or wanted.  With deeper consideration, we’ll likely find that we, in fact, are still on the path, or with simple adjustments can get back with an improved tool-set from this experience.

The direction of our Camino leads to ¨Santiago”  Let’s not give up the journey because we sometimes get lost or are confused as to whether or not we´re on the right road.  There is a right road, a correct path. It does exist, and we all do our best to stay on it.  Buen Camino

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Lessons From Emily’s Missing Boat, Teaching Me to Sail

“I’m fine, I think I’m doing really well, considering it just happened a year ago.”

The conversation is still fresh in my mind, although it took place over a year ago. The best part of family reunions is breakfast talk, and this one was with my oldest brother.  With a father who was absent much of the time, this brother takes on the alpha role, and it seems to continue on, decades later.

Anyway, he asked me a second time, “Bill, really, how are you?”

Really, I’m much better than most people would be after losing a child,” I replied very matter-of-factly.  “But life is just much different now.  I have absolutely no patience for bull-shit, no interest in unimportant things.  I don’t care about anything at all that doesn’t make me a ‘better version of myself,’  more likely to do what I’m supposed to do while I’m here.”

“That doesn’t sound like much fun, there’s more to life than just the important things!”

The tone had suddenly become very serious.  “Here’s the deal…  trust me, you have nothing to worry about – I would never do anything to hurt myself, but I don’t really care if I live, or not.  I’m ‘over it,’ and ready to check out”

My big brother’s face drained of all color.  I continued, “If I were diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, I’d tell no one, and not even consider any treatment.”  I was talking to a man in the midst of debilitating and painful prostate cancer treatment and recovery.  I’d held his hand as he recovered from anesthesia.  That was back when I thought divorce and the loss of my mother would be my darkest days, and the greatest tests of my faith.

He looked down at me as I had grown accustomed, he was the big brother with all of life’s knowledge, and I was Billy, the naive little boy.  He was using his adult logic to tell me how “stupid” my feelings were.  Except this time he was wrong.  It was I that had the knowledge, the life experience.

I ripped back into him angrily, for the first time in my memory,  It was as if he was from Mars, and had no idea what he was talking about, about how things really were.  This time it was I who possessed all of life’s knowledge.  I had lost my son, and he had no idea what he was talking about.

It seemed perfectly logical to me.  If a 19 year old child, my first son, could die, the world would end soon for all of us. Perhaps I felt as though the world had ended already.  My world had.  This was not a metaphor, it’s truly how I felt.  And if I was going to die soon, why would I get my oil changed, or get new tires, or cut the damn grass.

The shrinks nod approvingly, because apparently it’s just another stage to progress through, and mine were not uncommon feelings.  I hadn’t sought out mental health therapy, but it seemed to seek me out.  I’d been urged to visit, or even visited by organizations like Compassionate Friends, Rainbows, and ClearCause Foundation.  These are some pretty awesome folks well versed in uplifting the survivors.  But I’m a self-help junkie, and prefer to experience epiphany myself, especially if I can do it in a setting with my Lord and Savior.

Besides, like in the Tim McGraw song, Live Like You Were Dyin’, shouldn’t we all live like today could be our last day?  The tragedy had tested my faith, and directed me towards (an attempt at) being that “best version of myself,” that Matthew Kelly talks about.  In fact, it’s become my mantra when dealing with people myself, or pontificating to others – “Never say or do anything to someone that you wouldn’t want to be the last thing you ever said or did.”  And, in fact that is most certainly a healthy “life vision,” the best way to navigate through our daily encounters with others.

But the problem is, how selfish it was making me.  My focus of getting me through life righteously, would be much easier if it was a short life.  And so when I hiked the Camino de Santiago, I always took the highest, most dangerous, risky passages at every opportunity.  I agreed to jump out of “a perfectly good airplane” with my daughter Kayla on her 18th birthday, and I didn’t really care if my tires had been bald for a month.  That was the stuff I did subconsciously, my self-destructive unconscious.  My visible encounters with others took on the tone of, “What’s the right thing for me to do?”  But not for their sake, but for my own.  To get to heaven, but not just to get to heaven.  Because it makes God happy with me.

Upon reading back over this last paragraph, I realize it sounds like splitting hairs, and very philosophical.  Here’s what I mean – years ago, I heard a Buddhist version of a parable.

The student, after years of instruction, was told that his route to heaven was his mantra.  It was whispered in his ear, and he was sternly warned not to share it with anyone.  He asked the wise old monk, “What if I tell others of this mantra?”  “That would give them all access to heaven, but you would lose your own salvation.  It would be very foolish.”  Shortly later, the wise old monk heard much commotion outside, and looked to observe his student on the street, sharing his mantra with his family, his friends, everyone, in fact, who would listen.  The wise old monk rushed out to him, and looked down proudly, “You have learned well, and will most certainly join your friends in paradise.”

You see the difference?  It can not be “all about me.” Getting myself to heaven may, in fact be the point, but a much more loving and effective way to do so is selflessly.

So what’s any of this got to do with my daughter being lost at sea?

Tara (Nicholas Brown)

The “Tara”

 

Six days after we lost contact with Emily, I actually became angry with her for being so inconsiderate.  How could she put her life in such peril?  All of our lives had been torn apart, how literally destroyed each of us have been, how much pain her brother’s death had caused.  What was she thinking?!!  Clearly not thinking! Completely selfish and inconsiderate!  I’d had this very talk with her as we flew back from China with his ashes.  Our family could not withstand another loss.  Blatantly discarding all consideration of her family, she disregarded us and our feelings, and went on a tiny sailboat in predicted rough seas, and… and…

And yet, here I had been doing the same thing for two years.

Much of last Thursday’s workday had been on the phone with the United States Coast Guard and with Emily’s big sister’s fiance (a yacht captain), and the parents of Emily’s friend (the captain of the 32 foot Tara), being strong and coherent.  The rest of the day was spent squatting in the back room of my veterinary hospital embracing Cullen’s dog Svedka with tears streaming down my cheeks.

Then I drove home for two hours going 80 miles an hour in the rain on bald tires.   “And so, when I hydro-planed to my death, surely my son would embrace me, and lead me ‘home,’ to our Lord.”  How incredible will that be???  Much like Mercy Me’s hit I Can Only Imagine, I do look forward to that day!  But somehow, now it sounds embarrassing to even write down those words.

Do I think the loss of my own life would be any easier for Cullen’s siblings?  To lose their father, and new stepfather? And my own siblings?  Any my wife?  After already losing her first husband to lymphoma, I don’t have any more compassion and consideration for her than to take absurd risks with my own life, because I’m “over it?”

Psychologists call it cathexis.

It’s the emotional energy used in concentrating on a person, or the emotional value we develop and place on someone.  

I had so valued my relationship with Cullen, that I had disregarded my own value to Emily (who I was now angry with for being so “selfish”), Camille (who is counting on me to walk her down the aisle in a few months and to love and embrace those grandchildren she has planned), Kayla and Noah (who already said goodbye to their first father when they were just babies), and Sharon, who has already had the love of her life ripped from her by cancer.

And on that sixth day, as my anger evolved into concern, and I found my voice cracking, and often unable to complete sentences containing her name.  Only when I made myself numb could I speak matter-of-factly to the Coast Guard and others involved in the search.  I flashed back to my steps to the pulpit to deliver Cullen’s eulogy.

Our “Camino,” this journey through life, is full of growth and lessons that must be learned through living, and not taught from someone else’s perspective.

I can not be told how stupidly I’m behaving, I must come to that realization on my own.  In psychoanalytic terms, this process is called de-cathexis.

In order to refocus your life’s energies toward the future, you need displace some of that emotion onto other people and things in your life.  This process cannot be rushed, it takes time.

There have been many lessons learned from the Tara’s being blown off course by a wicked storm:

  • Many people, loved ones as well as strangers, have reconnected to prayer with our Lord.  Seldom are our prayers so quickly and visibly answered.  Thanks again to over a hundred thousand who bowed their heads for us.  In the only conversation I’ve had with her since, Emily described this all as very humbling.  If reconnecting others to prayer was the only consequence of this saga, its all been worthwhile.
  • My big brother still knows more than I do.
  • Emily’s a big girl, and gets to make her own decisions.  I’m not allowed to get upset if she doesn’t see things from my perspective.  I’d have gone on that sailboat too.  I have many times.  And she won’t learn the same lessons that I would have.  She’s not me.  Others travel their own journey, stumble and fall, and gain their own knowledge.
  • My car handles much better now with my new tires.
  • Sometimes, when the storm is too brutal, we must lower our sails, but then we drift and will eventually founder.  I’ve learned that it must be raised again to catch the wind, and move forward.

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Perhaps most importantly, I’m afforded the unexpected luxury of learning one of life’s valuable lessons, this time without tragedy.  It’s much different than reading books on grief recovery assuring me that, “It’s OK to keep living.  We don’t betray our lost loved ones by resuming life.”

It’s OK, or even required, to refocus some of that emotion, and reconnect with others that continue to love us, and also ache with their own bloodied knees.  Much Love.

 

 

 

Christmas 2014, A Parable for Today

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A while back, I walked the Camino de Santiago as part of my grief healing process after losing my son.  I had been informed, and found it true, that the spirituality, the soul saving energy of the Holy Spirit was “so thick there that you could cut it with a knife.”  The love and fraternity penetrated every perigrino, the pilgrims there for so many reasons, with such affect and effect that even the social participants would be changed forever.  Especially during the evenings at the albergues, the Spanish hostels for pilgrims, where sharing, toasting and camaraderie were evident. It was truly one of the highlights of my life – so much so that I would return back to operate my own albergue along “the way.”

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And so, I saw myself working with such effort that I was exhausted each day.  We decided to operate our hostel for no set fee, the pilgrim would pay what they could afford, a tariff called “donitivo,” or simply, donation of what one feels is worthy.  At the beginning, it was like my first marathon – exhilarating at each day’s finish line, but so worth it that even my wife, who I pulled into this journey with me, felt this service fulfilling.  But this calling began to take its toll.  We certainly collected enough to pay our bills, as many donated much, much more than the 12 euro typical of most albergues with set fees.  But day after day, week after week, year after year we were worn down.

Much like the decades of veterinary medicine I practiced, I loved the calling, the connections I made, the love and brotherhood I shared.  I knew what I was doing was worthwhile, and made a difference in so many lives, but, still, after all the time, we were just weary.  Some days turned into most days that I wondered if people cared how much effort was involved in what I did for them.  And like the few that didn’t seem to appreciate my veterinary service, the traveler or two that didn’t express appreciation or even pay anything at all for the meal and bed that we provided began to hurt my feelings.

I grew indignant, such that I looked forward to the slow season, when fewer and fewer people would impose upon me.  I was just plain tired.  And so when November, and then December rolled around, I was so relieved.  Imagine my frustration when, at the end of December, more tour groups came through and kept me at capacity for day after day, and now weeks of exhaustion.  Every night, Sharon and I melted into our bed, only to be startled a few hours later to start it all over again.  Preparing their food, and changing the linens on the beds that the next nights refugees would so appreciate.

And so that night, ever so memorable, began just like every other.  It was cold, we were full, and the words came so easily – “sorry but we’re full – continue on to the next town,” where lodging might be available.  But this was different.  These travelers were so presumptuous, even inconsiderate.  It was well after ten, and they thought there were vacancies?  We had been full, and turning people away since 2 o’clock!  But what was most inconsiderate was not the hour, but the condition of these travelers.  He was old and clearly out of shape, and she was very pregnant.  What the heck were they thinking, doing the Camino at all, in their conditions, much less when it was so cold.  Their previous town had been well over 10 kilometers prior, how could he possibly expect her to make it here, and now … nothing for another 18 kilometers.  They could never continue on.

I reminisced back to that night, forever ago, when I trudged ahead on my own first Camino, so cold and tired, only to find the fee for lodging I so desperately needed to be “cash only,” and more than I had remaining in my pocket.  The tears were streaming down my cheeks as I was turned away, on to the next town, in the freezing driving rain.

This was precisely why I had no set fee – someone might need my help and not have whatever I wanted to charge.  A donation of the travelers’ choosing seemed so appropriate.  And this was, in fact, the tradition, a thousand years ago, when so many saints and sinners, including my favorite St Francis, had walked this Camino de Santiago.

It’s hard to put into words my appreciation, that first Camino, when just around the corner from where I had been turned away in that freezing rain, was a different albergue, one that wasn’t in the guidebook, that allowed me to stay for what I could afford.

Sharon startled me from those memories, when she whispered into my ear what I should have thought of myself as the weary couple turned and walked away in disappointment.  “We’ll make room somewhere, they can even stay in our room,  they’ll never make it to the next town.  Besides, they’re probably also full at this hour.”

“Wait!” I shouted as they disappeared in the dark, “If you want to, you can sleep in with the pups.”

To help pay the bills, we raised boxer dogs and had a litter almost ready to wean in what used to be the garage.  It was foul smelling of canine waste, and probably loud with whining and barking, but at least they would have a cover for the night.

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I was surprised that my wife wasn’t happy with me.  Apparently she was serious about giving up our own bed.  She was nuts, there was no way I was going to go without, because of someone else’s lack of planning. I was tired, and had worked hard.

My heart was full of chaos, I was exhausted, and I needed rest for tomorrow.  But there would never be another tomorrow.  My life would be demanded of me tonight.  And in my business, I had missed Him in our midst.  I’d prepared my entire life for this very night, and yet my own lamp was without oil.

I failed to recognize Joseph as my brother.

But I had given them shelter.  Wasn’t that good enough?  Was it?

I’d never killed anyone or robbed, or cheated, or told any big lies.  Wasn’t that good enough?

I had allowed the mother of my Lord to sleep with my dogs.  How could I possibly know she would have the child that night?  I hadn’t turned them away, had I?

Would you have?

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Not Alone on my Camino

Fourteen year old Bernadette Soubirous was the poorest of the poor.  Her father was unemployed, having been pushed out of his job as modern advances made his profession obsolete.  The entire family of six existed in the single room that had years ago been abandoned as unfit for the village’s jailhouse.  The stench of the town’s overflowing sewage was overpowering, but the family was literally destitute, and at least had a room together where they could huddle around the fireplace.  Bernadette had been sick much of her entire life, with her asthma resulting in chronic respiratory disease.  Malnutrition, the cold weather, and lack of medical care was taking its daily toll on her.  She had missed more days of school than she had attended, and as such could barely read, the homely girl was labeled “simple” by her teachers, and teased as “stupid” by her classmates.  She was poor white trash of her day.

The story would feel uncomfortably…

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