“Have you ever sailed across an ocean Donald … on a sailboat, surrounded by sea with no land in sight, without even the possibility of sighting land for days to come? To stand at the helm of your destiny. I want that, one more time. I want to be in the Piazza del Campo in Siena. To feel the surge as 10 racehorses go thundering by. I want another meal in Paris, at L’Ambroisie, at the Place des Vosges. I want another bottle of wine. And then another. I want the warmth of a woman and a cool set of sheets. One more night of jazz at the Vanguard. I want to stand on the summits and smoke Cubans and feel the sun on my face for as long as I can. Walk on the Wall again. Climb the Tower. Ride the River. Stare at the Frescos. I want to sit in the garden and read one more good book. Most of all I want to sleep. I want to sleep like I slept when I was a boy. Give me that, just one time. That’s why I won’t allow that punk out there to get the best of me, let alone the last of me.” ~ James Spader as Raymond Reddington in “The Blacklist”
If life’s peaks and valleys have taught me nothing else in 50 years, they’ve shown me the importance of recognizing seasons when you should just be still. When you feel like you’re in the wilderness, the best thing you can do is embrace the quiet and listen.
Most of 2015 was such a season for me. And it was, furthermore, a year when I thought a lot about my own mortality.
Entering my sixth year of a career funk, (some would call that more than a short dry spell) I’d spent much of 2014 considering the next major move. There was a strong draw to a six-figure investment for a retail franchise I really liked, then a movie about a successful chef with a food truck brought some surprising inspiration about that notion. Go figure. Needless to say, I was all over the map, and both required money I could probably get, but couldn’t necessarily afford. At this point wounds from closing my beloved publishing business in 2008 were healed, but I still remember how much they hurt. It’s not a pain I want to feel again, and with it all comes a certain sense of caution. When clouds of caution hang like heavy fog over a risk-taking personality, it’s constant inner turmoil. A betting friend of mine says, “Scared money never wins.”
I’d always heard the ages between 45 and 55 were the most productive times of a man’s life – the time when he makes a real contribution. The urge to sink my energies, and invest my time into something real, was, well, real. But this is also an age when you first begin experiencing the loss of important people, many of whom shaped how you are, and what you think and believe.
The unusually high number of friends, mentors and other acquaintances who died that year pulled me in another direction that whispered, “Time is short. Forget a career. Experience your purpose. I’ll take care of the rest. Breathe.”
Cultural change and progressive attitudes over time can be a good thing. Society evolves, and that’s a double-edged sword. The evolution of how we think makes many things better. But it also often moves us in the opposite direction of many things that are true. One of the cute little sayings that’s made its way into society is this notion that “everything happens for a reason.” The idea is based on a dangerously liberal paraphrase from Romans 8:28 which reads:
“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.”
So yes, God’s infinite wisdom and sovereign reign over all creation make everything work in His behalf, and in His time, but the gift of our own free will means we screw a lot of things up along the way. Much of what we do was never in God’s greater plan. The very idea that everything I’ve done in my life was perfectly in line and with the greater good makes me laugh out loud. I know disobedience personally.
Free will means we have the freedom to make mistakes. It’s also a gift, given by the Creator, consistent with his creative nature, that allows us to shape our lives in beautiful ways, learning uniquely, and growing as we go. It requires that we have a certain comfort level with uncertainty.
It requires faith.
With anxiety and a sense of urgency over my career growing inside every cell of my spirit in early 2015, it would’ve been easy to make a bad decision, and a bad decision could’ve been costly in more ways than one. The time wasn’t right to do something big, and I knew it. So I bought myself some time in a crazy, low-risk sort of way. I bought a lawnmower and a trailer, and decided to mow yards for a living until the next move became clear. It’s the best decision/non-decision I’ve made in a long time.
I had about 12 yard-mowing clients in the summer of 2015. It’s really hard work when the temperatures are high. But it was a good way to be my own boss, and gave me much needed time to think about a bigger move, also giving us a bit of bill-paying money. The unexpected benefit is there’s a certain sense of satisfaction in work like mowing yards. At the end of the day, you can look back and see you’ve really done something. It’s important, I think, especially to men.
Once I realized that, and really thought about it, my next move became crystal clear. As much as I’d been patient in recent years, and done my best to listen, on July 4 as I was preparing a backyard barbecue for family and friends, I realized I needed to go away, be even more intentional with my listening, and pursue something I’d been thinking about for nearly three years.
I needed to do something to feel like a man again, and remembered a C.S. Lewis quote I’d first read in John Eldridge’s book, Wild at Heart.
“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
I walked into my office, fired up the computer and booked an October 19 plane ticket to Madrid. A 500-mile walk across Spain might just be the perfect place to figure things out, and even feel like a real man again.
Fourteen kilometers west of Pamplona, pilgrims reach the peak of Alto de Perdón (the high place of forgiveness). It’s a significant stop on the Camino made even more famous in a special scene in Emilio Estevez’s The Way. Like many personal experiences we all encounter, it’s difficult to describe exactly how you feel at this place where the vista seems almost endless, and you can look back nearly 70 kilometers to see how far you’ve come. It’s one of those rare feelings you never want to end.
As I reached the peak of Alto de Perdón my feet were blistered, my back hurt, and my legs were just beginning to sense the effects of a long-distance walk. I looked across the amazing sight of the Spanish countryside and was thankful for every ache and pain. I’d asked for this through the gift of my own free will.
With no idea what tomorrow would bring, it was the first time in years when I felt I was standing at the helm of my destiny. It was a defining moment.