about (the story)

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
— Jack Kerouac (The Dharma Bums)

on my way back to the sea

i have an appointment. on the last day of the year, i am to meet her there on an empty beach. my assignment was to live a year, a holy year, along the camino de santiago pilgrimage route. i had few instructions, one or two of my own questions and a name that was given to me before i arrived. the instruction was only to live the experience. my own questions asked for a deeper understanding about who i really am and what is it that i have to give to the world. the name that was given to me by a teacher is kundön neyjama. these tibetan words translate into peregrina de la verdad, or pilgrim of truth. … no pressure there.

it is a long story. i will do my best to be authentic and to share this journey with you. to show, through my experience, what is possible when you make the decision to set out on your own road, a road to the soul. that you will find the courage to make your own way, how all things are possible and how close we truly are to what some call miracles. maybe this is what some people call an awakening. and i feel like i have been sleeping for a very long time.

a bit of  history

i have spent most of the last twenty of my forty-four years as an artist in key west, florida. i studied fine art photography at the university of florida and worked mostly in black and white film. one of my biggest adventures came as a two month sojourn, sailing along the north coast of cuba, photographing the simple fisherman in all of their stark beauty.  another part of my work that i love deeply is to restore old wood from boats and barns (the more weathered the better) and then to construct what i call sea {soul} boxes with crooked doors that open wide, revealing tender insides made up of found objects from the sea … shells, driftwood, seaglass … and then salted with poetry painted by hand.

hearing the call of the camino

once upon a time, i had a dream. the vision was vivid and i remember it clearly to this day. in the dream, i was in a small village that felt like long ago somewhere in france. there was an old woman with wild silver hair and a big grin shuffling towards me on a street made of cobble stones. she had her arms loaded with scallop shells and was encouraging me or maybe even daring me to take one. i could see my hand reach out … the dream ended there and i woke up.

some time later, i was in an antique shop and came across a dusty box full of scallop shells, large and ancient. i was so intrigued by these mysterious shells, these ancient symbols of fertility and rebirth from my art history days. i worked them into the boxes that i was making, along with the poet, pablo neruda’s bittersweet words … la carta en el camino (letter on the road).

Love, I am waiting for you.
Farewell, love, I am waiting for you.
Love, love, I am waiting for you.

And so this letter ends
with no sadness:
my feet are firm upon the earth,
my hand writes this letter on the road,
and in the midst of life I shall be
always
beside the friend, facing the enemy,
with your name on my mouth
and a kiss that never
broke away from yours.

-from Letter on the Road, Pablo Neruda

curiously, i remember that also during this time, i had strange desire to undertake a long distance hike. i read about the peace pilgrim and i even started researching the appalachian trail. i was interested, but wasn’t convinced that it was my thing.  … one day, a book drifted into my hands. it was paulo coelho’s the pilgrimage. and when i read the story, it started to come together for me. the symbolic scallop shell, the long journey, spiritual quest. the seed within my soul had been stirred. the road was calling.

november, 2004, vézelay, france 1700k to santiago

in late november of 2004, i set off on my first camino from vézelay, france. i was ready. well, let me be clear. i was totally unprepared and unknowing of what was in store for me. but deep within, i was ready for the Camino to put me on my new road. the road to my soul.

my backpack was as heavy as it could get, my heart was freshly broken from a love story gone south and i was completely wrapped up in my identity as a photographer. ripe for the road. and so, my camino began. at the time, i also had made big plans to make this journey a documentary project and was prepared for some kind of pilgrim safari with two very heavy film cameras, an extra lens or two, lots of film. and, so it went … and i cried for two full weeks under the enormous weight of my pack, my cameras, my film, my identity, my old life. but, my grip was mighty.  give it up, the Camino would say, asking me to rid myself of the weight of my burdens and my plans.  no, i would cry. i somehow felt that if i let go of these things, that i would surely disappear. and on i fought. give it up, the Camino nudged me gently. no, fuck you!, i would shout, shaking my fist at the sky as my feet swelled and blistered. give it up, the Camino whispered. never, i said under my breath. and we continued like this. until one day, in so much pain, i simply broke. i was done. i had walked along the frost covered path through a field without socks or shoes. it was december now. my feet were unrecognizable to me. and then, something struck me. could it be that in 18 days, i had taken only one photograph. one. and it was a snapshot. after that, nothing. there i had been, shaking my fist at the heaven, all for one snapshot.

and then, with bare feet on cold earth, i listened. and i heard nothing from the heavens but an ocean of silence. the Camino had made her point clear. there would be no project this time. no fame, no fortune, no exhibition. but, if i chose it, there could be me. my first very real and most important contract that i would make with the Camino. i was to be the project. so, i took off my pack and in a frosty field in the middle of france, i sealed the contract with simple bow of my head. yes, i’ll do it. the very next day, i sent my identity off in the post, pried from the grip of my egoic hand. this moment was the beginning of an opening for me. the possibility to discover over the next months on the road who i was and who i had the potential to be.

arriving at the end

when i arrived there on the shore of finisterra over two and a half months later, i understood for the first time in my life, what it felt like to arrive. after the long journey filled with experiences good, strange and difficult, i had made it. and when i looked out over the sea, across the waters known as the coast of death, i felt an incredible lightness of being. and when i looked down at my hands, unclenched from the grip of who i though i was … and because i had made room, the camino placed another small seed of inspiration in my open palms of who i could possibly be.  the end became a new beginning.  i made a promise in that moment that i would, god willing, come back to the camino for the next holy year in 2010. and that i would trust that i would be shown what to do and not for any other reason but to live the experience, make something  beautiful and then to offer it up for the world.

the return

in those next years, after my return home to key west with this seed of inspiration, the idea would manifest in the form of a literary journal called the secret of salt: an indigenous journal. i would publish three of these books and one edition in newspaper format over the next few years, which in the end, would include the voices of over 150 different artists and writers of all levels. during this time, i would also return to the road, in search of the pearl, as my one long camino continued. once you step foot on this long and strange road, you never really leave it.

november 2009

in late november of 2009, i gave away the last of my things and said as many goodbyes as i was able to. i was raw, but ready. i was on my way to finisterra, just as i had promised.

as i was leaving my beloved island, the one who had held me so well for so long … i remember these words: from the old beat poet, kirby congdon on what it is that i have to give: it will appear to you as does the poem to the poet. … and from the coffeehouse shaman:  leave all of your things behind. you don’t need them any more. me – but what do i get to keep? he said in his gruff yet loving way … well, you will keep all things of the soul.and then there was that name i was given by a teacher.

with only those words, my backpack and a big leap of faith …  i was on my way.

finisterra

on the last day of the year 2009, i sat on the rocks near the lighthouse and wrote a letter to myself. i wrote words to the woman who i hoped to meet there at the end of my year on the road. in it, i included a prayer that i would find my way, and that in finding my way, others could find their way too. … and then i rolled up the paper, slipped it into the glass bottle, cork on tight, buried it in the sand like a pirate and then laughed to myself as i made a kind of treasure map so i wouldn’t forget where to dig.

and so, as i said in the beginning, i have an appointment on the last day of 2010, after a whole holy year on the camino de santiago pilgrimage trail. if i make it, i will meet her there. the woman that i have become through living this experience.

this time, i arrived to the road with very few things, my heart and palm open. i can hear the words of the old poet and the coffeehouse shaman reminding me of what lives within me and a name that contains the potential of who i could be … and the camino has gently placed the camera back into my open hand.

now, i can tell you a story.