Emerging from a Self-Induced Travel Coma

As I sat with Don Crawley at Sea-Tac Airport on my way to Italy he said, “Wow, you’ve had a lot going on in your life.” Don’s right, and it’s clear I haven’t had a lot of time to sort through it all. The after-effects of the many changes appeared at different times yesterday.

The most obvious change, of course, was leaving Seattle to go to Italy. My arms felt like they were glued to Theresa as we hugged at the Departures driveway at SeaTac Airport. I didn’t want to let this great woman go. She’s become very important to me since we met on October 31st last year and I’m really not ready to put our relationship on hold with so much yet to discover. This whole Italy plan was hatched before we met and I’m not sure I could’ve passed up a summer with Theresa if I’d known about the possibility as I got the wheels rolling for this Italian guidebook adventure.

With Don at Gate S12 at SeaTac Airport - day of departure.

With Don at Gate S12 at SeaTac Airport – day of departure.

After passing through security, my friend Don Crawley was waiting for me with a cheerful smile. He had noted via Facebook that we’d be at the airport at around the same time — Don going to Los Angeles on business. while I headed to Italy. We sat together over coffee and a pleasant chat while we awaited my plane which would be the first to leave. We began plotting a future rendezvous — Don is cooking up a holiday in France this summer while his wife, Janet, is teaching a class near there and we’ll meet in Florence for a guys’ holiday in the city of Michelangelo.

As we talked, Don may have noted that I had already started to succumb to what I’ve come to call my “travel coma.” My speech starts to slow down, my eyes take on this drowsy look, and my brain begins to operate at partial capacity. It’s something like going into shock after an injury, but a travel coma for me is an odd deadening of senses that somehow helps me deal with the discomforts of being jammed into a small seat for hours at a time while changing time zones, languages, currency and cultures.

Inside the Reykjavik airport.

Inside the Reykjavik airport.

After saying goodbye to Don the coma began to take hold. The flight to Iceland took off at 4:30pm Seattle time and arrived at 5:30am Reykjavik time, but somehow there was never a sunset. Our jet took us north quickly enough that we squeezed dusk and dawn together somewhere above the Arctic Circle. By the time I got to Iceland I’d slept just a touch. I grabbed a sandwich, and orange and some chocolate milk for what I guess was breakfast and then stepped right onto my London flight. The couple next to me must’ve enjoyed watching my head bob up and down as I drifted into and out of sleep in the window seat.

I briefly emerged from my coma as I arrived in London and I realized right at Passport Control that due to the lack of a pen I hadn’t filled in my Arrival Card. I borrowed a pen in line and quickly filled it out with a quick scan and some scribbled responses. Then, when I arrived at the passport desk, the immigration officer asked one of those innocuous but deeply meaningful questions.

“What is your occupation? You left the space blank.”

How could I tell her that I wasn’t sure anymore? I’d just retired after 34 years of ministry as a pastor and was heading to Italy to study Italian and write a guidebook. Not only that, but I hadn’t had time to consider all the consequences and was in a jumble of feelings in the purgatory between the past and present.

“I’m self-employed,” I blurted out.

“Self-employed doing what?” she said in her British accent.

I thought for a long second and then said, “I’m writing a guidebook.”

“OK, you could just put down, ‘writer,'” she said as she filled in my occupation for me and stamped my passport.

And there it is. If anyone asks, I’m a writer. The lady at the desk said so, and I’m not going to argue with her. The vocational transition occurred in a 10-second conversation. Goodbye, pastoring. Hello authoring. The pastoring took four years of seminary, a handful of interviews, psychological testing, much fervent prayer, and the laying on of the hands of two bishops. Becoming a writer took a book contract and the quick decision of an Immigration Officer. Both were conferred on me by others, came after a period of waiting and involved paperwork. So my new vocation sounds official and, at least for now, the appellation will have to do.

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Inside Terminal 5 at Heathrow after being ordained a writer.

After being ordained a writer I stumbled my way between Terminal 1 and Terminal 5 of Heathrow and boarded British Airways for Rome. Following more dozing in the window seat, bathed in the sunlight-that-should-be-nighttime we landed at Fiumicino Airport. Italy at last.

I boarded the train for Termini Station where I’d reserved a B&B for the night and am pretty sure I had a pleasant conversation through the drowsiness of my coma in French, Spanish and English with a retired couple from Montreal in the seats across from me. Then I made my stupid mistake.

I was on the curb outside Termini Station, still partially comatose, when I suddenly realized I didn’t know where my B&B was located. I vaguely remembered it was close to Termini, but without an Italian cell phone plan, my usual guide — Google Maps — was unavailable. A man yelled “Taxi!” and I ignored him, but then impulsively turned around, threw my bags into his car, and told him where I was headed. He took me on a whirlwind drive for about 10 blocks — right back to a point at the train station about 2 blocks from where we’d started. Then he demanded 25 Euros.

Hotel Girandola Bed and Breakfast. Just a block from Termini Station.

Hotel Girandola Bed and Breakfast. Just a block from Termini Station.

I just laughed. Then I said “No,” and handed him a 5 Euro note and some change. He complained loudly in Italian. I smiled and  politely stood my ground — I wasn’t going to pay this scoundrel another cent. After he drove off in a cloud of probable profanity (speaking words I may not learn in my upcoming Italian studies) I wandered a couple of blocks away and found my B&B — right across from the train station, not a block from where I had picked up the cab.

I buzzed the door at the B&B, found my simple, cozy room, had dinner nearby, and headed to bed to sleep off my coma and begin my Italian adventure as a writer. Ciao, Seattle. Bongiorno, Italia.

The Future is Now

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Answering questions of the press at our launch of The Center for Gun Responsibility last Monday

The last days have been a whirlwind: finishing a list of 42 projects that all had to be done before I could leave, moving all my things (a few into storage and the rest to Theresa’s place), preaching my final sermon at First Church, enjoying a grand retirement celebration, speaking at a press conference for our new non-profit, the Center for Gun Responsibilitysaying goodbye to my now-former roommate, Luke Brown, and preparing my documents, backpack and duffel bag for the big trip to Italy. I leave from Seattle tomorrow and I won’t be back for a few months. In fact, I don’t even have a return ticket yet since I’m not sure exactly how long it’ll take me to research The Way of St. Francis.

The emotions are coming in waves. A wave hit on Sunday as I walked out the door with my robe in hand, knowing I’d preached my last sermon at First Church. It was a tugging in my chest and a brief tear. Then another wave hit as I stood in shorts and t-shirt and said goodbye to the staff in a brief visit to the office today. It was a tightness in my throat and a deep sadness in my heart as turned and walked out the door. Then tonight at dinner with Theresa another wave washed over me. I’ll miss her for almost two months until she joins me in mid-July. I looked across her in the light of the candles she’d lit on her patio table as we shared a last supper. I know tomorrow will be an emotional day as she drives me to the airport and I kiss her goodbye and I say farewell to my Seattle life and become a pilgrim again.

That’s the part that gives me the most joy as I look ahead. Yes, I’ll be a student of the Italian language for the next month in Perugia. Yes, I’ll be an author as I write this guidebook for Cicerone Press. But, yes, I’ll be a pilgrim again. Starting on June 26, after language study in Perugia and a quick trip to see friends in Vienna, I’ll be a pilgrim once more. I’ll walk 600 kilometers from Florence to Rome, arriving around July 31 in the Eternal City.

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One of many “Selfies with Sandy” from our goodbye festivities over the last weeks at First Church. With Justin Prasad, Reeni Gray and Nadia Gelle.

To be a pilgrim means to travel deliberately and with reverence toward a clear goal. In Spain or Italy I’ve been a pilgrim — for a month every year but one since 2008 — logging over 3000 km on dusty roads, through mountain passes, in rainstorms, in thundershowers and sunshine, with other pilgrims or alone, looking for the saints, sleeping in strange beds or under the stars, eating too little food and drinking too much wine. And I’ve cherished every moment.

I love the rhythm of pilgrim days. Morning light appears out of a strange window above me as I awake in an unfamiliar bed. The road pulls me from warmth and comfort of bed out into the fresh morning. If there’s a cafe there’ll be a slow coffee and a quick croissant. Then an uphill morning. Every morning is uphill, even if the elevation points downward. The first kilometer is cold, then walking warms up my legs and I start to see the day before me. I enter an odd mental and spiritual state between quiet and rapture as I walk, a state that is interrupted only as I look for way marks to assure myself I’m walking the right way. Then lunch — either from the pack or from a restaurant or cafe along the way. Then back to the road as it pulls me downward — the afternoon is always downhill — toward the day’s goal. Then there is a conversation, a bed, some laundry, a meal (again, too much wine) and a blessed night of rest. And then…. repeat. And repeat again. Repeat it three or four dozen times until the grieving begins on the last days when the pilgrimage is nearly complete, which is followed by the grieving that is mixed with joy at the pilgrimage goal, which is followed by the same grieving that begins again after the return home when the feet have stopped aching and the last year’s pilgrimage begins to fade into memory and the next year’s pilgrimage slowly and quietly begins to beckon.

Most pilgrims I know aren’t satisfied with just one pilgrimage. After they’ve tasted the depredations of pilgrim life they beg for more. After a second pilgrimage there’s no happiness until the third. And so it goes.

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These people in body suits just appeared from nowhere

Today between two of my errands I saw another pilgrim — another soul enriched by the joy of walking. I stopped at Starbucks near the stadiums and paused to take photos of a group of people dressed in colorful body suits and dancing in the streets. This sort of thing always happens in Seattle. Anyway, I turned and was stunned to see Ed Tennyson standing there. Ed is another long-distance pilgrim who’s walked the camino many times and who has become a friend and colleague in all things camino over the last few years. He’d walked from his home in West Seattle and was heading to REI — a 20 mile walk round trip. A normal pilgrim day whether he is in town or on camino. We laughed and hugged, he wished me well on my upcoming adventure, and then he turned to continue his walk. As I watched him walk away I realized how I — or rather “we” who bear the name pilgrim — must look to others. A little hunched, a little weary, a little slow, a little contemplative, a little ecstatic.

It’s still a month of language classes away before I actually begin to walk, but I am ready. I am really ready to really walk. It feels right to walk while writing a guidebook for others who will come after. It’s right because I will have to watch carefully and fall in love with it in words and photos and maps. It feels right because it is about sharing this walk with others.

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Ed Tennyson with wife Ellie on a recent pilgrimage

I know, too, that as I walk I will be doing the pilgrim work of contemplation. It’s been quite the year — separation, moving, divorce, dating, signing a book contract, building a new relationship, retiring, choosing to run for office next year, working hard on important justice topics, rooming with Luke, loving Theresa …… so much. I’m ready to walk, to think, to pray, to write and to be in the new way that God is calling me to be.

I said to Theresa on Sunday afternoon that I felt like I’m stepping into the future right now. “No,” she said. “You can never step into the future. You are always in the present you know.”

“No,” I wish I’d said. “The future is now.”