Pilgrim’s Progress

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The Way of Saint James in Spain.

It has been a little more than a year, now. I remember well the day. It was filled with the kind of eruptions seemingly about nothing in particular that, in a marriage, are too often the harbingers of something very particular. Such arguments always seem random and senseless at the time. Only in hindsight do we recognize them as volcanic, arising from deep, unseen fissures that open slowly as a relationship comes apart. They may lie dormant for a while, but eventually they widen and explode. A critical eruption in my life came at ten o’clock in the evening of July 17, 2015, when my wife of five years asked for a divorce. I lacked the will to fight. The truth be told, I felt a strange mixture of fear and relief that she had spoken out loud what we’d both been thinking.

It was not the first time. There had been tremors before. We had separated the previous May, then had a change of heart in June. Now, the pendulum had swung back. I felt a sense of defeat, of inevitability.

Divorce, that always inopportune change of life, happened at an especially inopportune time for me. Six weeks earlier, I had been rescued five hundred miles south of Nova Scotia in the Atlantic Ocean after my thirty-foot ketch started taking on water from structural damage. Offered rescue by a passing ship, I made the decision to abandon my boat and my quest to sail solo to Ireland, where my wife and I had planned to reunite and, however naïvely, renew our vows. A week later I returned to Charleston amid some modest fanfare from an AP story about the rescue, but deep down I was still adrift. I was embarrassed about how the voyage had ended. I felt a little foolish and more than a little sad. I had failed. Six months earlier, the world had looked much brighter.

On January 1, 2015, I had sold my North Carolina law practice to a large firm, found a home for my employees, and, at the age of 56, walked away from a satisfying, thirty-year career as a trial lawyer. I wasn’t rich, but I was excited and animated by the new possibilities for my life, which is a feeling money can’t buy. My wife had taken a big job for a six-figure salary in her home town and moved back ahead of me to the lovely house where she had lived before we married. Selling my practice in Raleigh made it possible for me to join her. My children were out of college, away from home, and happily employed. I felt the pressure of professional life and the burden of being the primary breadwinner subside for the first time in three decades. I had high hopes for a more fulfilling future as a part-time novelist and a full-time English teacher. I took and passed my teaching certification exams, but my job-search sputtered. Although I applied to dozens of schools in the spring of 2015, the door to full-time employment remained shut.

The fall semester promised new opportunities for employment in teaching, but in the meantime, I looked forward to my first summer off in forty years. I owned an old sailboat, and the sea beckoned. A solo passage to Ireland offered a grand adventure and some publicity for my third novel, then in progress. The two months I planned to take to complete the voyage would fulfill the sea-time requirement to renew the commercial captain’s license I had acquired in 1992—handy, we thought, for a possible future venture running weekend charters. Even better, the marina rates in Ireland were half the cost of berthing a boat in Charleston Harbor. Better still, the savings on slip rent meant we could keep the boat as a second home in Europe and afford romantic getaways as we’d done before in the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic. But all those dreams slipped beneath the waves when Prodigal was lost. Six weeks after I returned from that disastrous passage, my marriage had foundered and sunk as well—my second marriage, mind you. I was embarrassed. I felt foolish. I had failed—again.

On that night of July 17, the new reality of my life was defined by everything that was missing from it: I had no job, no title, no staff, no office to go to every morning, no reason to put on a smart suit and tie, no clients clamoring for my advice, no house, no home, no boat—and, suddenly, no wife and no plan. There was very little left of the identity I had created for myself over the past forty years. Everything had changed, and so I made a decision to change everything.

Over the course of the next three weeks, I sold all that I owned—that is, whatever I didn’t absolutely need that anyone would buy, which was nearly all of it: a car, a truck, a grand piano, a canoe, a pop-up camper, toys and gear and equipment and computers and books and artwork and jewelry and knickknacks of all descriptions. The rest I gave away or left behind. At the same time, I began buying the tools of a pilgrim: a backpack, good boots, a sleeping bag, rain gear. Most importantly, I bought a plane ticket—to Dublin.

With nowhere in particular to go, I decided to go to Ireland, the land of my lately disappointed dreams, and wander awhile. I needed to live frugally, that much was clear, but I wasn’t about to surrender to fear over money, slink back to Raleigh, tail tucked between my legs, and resume the practice of law. I was in reasonably good shape, physically. Backpacking across Europe was something I had always regretted not doing after college and had never thereafter had the means or time to do. The liberation and excitement of simplifying my life and embarking on a new adventure obscured, for a time, the sadness of what was prompting those changes. I flew to Ireland on August 11 and set out on the Wicklow Way, a hiking trail through the rolling hills south of Dublin.

The first night, I was caught unawares by a feeling of abject loneliness in the small bivouac I had pitched in an unnamed wood. On the second day, still resolute, I chanced to meet four women who cheered me with stories of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the “Way of Saint James,” an ancient footpath travelled by pilgrims for a thousand years to the shrine of the apostle in Spain. If I ever wanted to go, they explained, I needed only to take a cheap flight from Dublin to Biarritz, and from there a train to St. Jean Pied de Port, in France, where the pilgrimage begins. They wished me well and left me alone again with my thoughts.

By the morning of the third day, despair had set in along with the stark reality that I had lost much of what I had once known as “my life.” I was overwhelmed. Starved for sleep, I found myself literally without the physical strength to climb the modest hill that loomed before me. I turned back, found a bed and breakfast with an Internet connection, and hastily wrote an email to my wife with a subject line that read, “Please Take Me Back.” I also wrote to friends, whom I had left with the glib and false impression that I was happily resolved to return to the single life, and admitted that I felt very much at the end of my rope. I needed rescue, but  rescue came in an unexpected form. My wife answered my plea with a simple but firm refusal. In the end it would be her greatest gift to me: the gift of finality and clarity from which come healing and acceptance. There was no going back, this time. The only way left to me was the way forward.

Dinner at the albergue in Ribadisio with fellow pilgrims from Norway, Canada, and Germany.

Dinner at the albergue in Ribadisio with fellow pilgrims from Norway, Canada, and Germany.

It was then I vaguely recalled the sparse details of my conversation with the four women. Over the next twenty-four hours, I winnowed my possessions further—some thirty pounds’ worth. My bed-and-breakfast hosts became the startled recipients of various items of camping gear I wouldn’t need or couldn’t bear to carry on the 530 miles of the Camino. I shipped a laptop and cameras and cables and hard drives back to friends in the USA and boarded a plane. I had no guidebook. In fact, I barely knew where or what the Camino was. I relied heavily on the vague advice that all would be clear once I arrived in St. Jean. It was not.

With a fellow pilgrim from Poland who reached this statue on a summit of the Camino, near the tiny village of O Cebreiro, just as I did.

With a fellow pilgrim from Poland who reached this statue near the tiny village of O Cebreiro just as I did.

The people at the help desk in the Biarritz airport spoke only French, not English or Spanish. Through a series of pantomimes, a pleasant woman explained that I was to walk outside to the curb and wait for the bus to Bayonne. In Bayonne I had my first meal in a French café, then more pantomimes with other pleasant people revealed that I was to take a second bus from there to St. Jean. By then I had joined a small knot of anxious pilgrims, all making our way for the first time to the same strange place. The volunteers staffing the tiny office set up in St. Jean spoke very little English but could not have been more caring. When it became clear that every albergue (hostel) in the village was full, they led me and twenty other late-arrivers to a gymnasium to spend the night in our sleeping bags on wrestling mats.

On the first morning of the Camino, I lacked a key bit of information. I had no idea which way to go. I learned then the most valuable lessons of life as a pilgrim: humility and patience. I didn’t know everything anymore. In fact, I didn’t know much of anything. I was dependent on others. I needed their help, and I needed to be willing to wait for it. I had to follow and trust people other than myself. And I did.

Through the happenstance and serendipity by which friendships are so often made on the Camino, I made new friends every day. We shared directions, advice, bandages, hopes, fears, sorrows, and stories. For so little money, I enjoyed simple and  delicious meals and good wine. I savored, even more than the tapas, long hours of conversation with pilgrims from Australia, Malaysia, Germany, England, Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Russia, Norway, Poland, Italy, Denmark, France, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Slovakia, and a dozen other countries I can’t remember.

The giant botafumeiro spreads incense throughout the medieval cathedral in Santiago, where the altar enshrines the tomb of Saint James. The botafumeiro was originally used to fumigate the unwashed hordes of pilgrims who came to the shrine of the apostle from all over Europe by the millions throughout the Middle Ages, seeking absolution.

Through it all, for two months and five hundred miles, I steadfastly refused to read a guidebook. Each day, I had no idea what lay ahead, how far I would go, when the next albergue would appear, or where I would find an open bed for the night. I simply walked and followed my fellow pilgrims. When I was thirsty, a village fountain would eventually appear, flowing with cool, clear water. When I was hungry, I would pass a café around a corner in a tiny village, its cases filled with food and its taps glistening with sweat from ice-cold San Miguel beer. New people and places and experiences and insights came to me when they were most needed, as if by the mystery of providence, every day. The Camino changed my life, and when I finally saw the giant botafumeiro soaring through the corridors of the cathedral in Santiago, my life changed again. Having failed at so much of late, I felt astonishing success when I reached the ocean at Finisterre. But my progress as a pilgrim didn’t end there.

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Winter in the cottage near Machynlleth, Wales.

I was still on the Camino when I formed the plan come to Great Britain after I finished. I wanted a quiet place to hunker down for the winter and finish writing The Passage, which had been put on hold with all that followed the decision to divorce. A cottage on those lush, mist-soaked hills of Wales seemed the best, and importantly, most affordable choice. It was a brilliant choice at that. It rained every day in the little town of Machynlleth (pronounced “Mack-HUNK-leth” by the Welsh), forcing me to sit indoors and write. I was also befriended and encouraged by my landlord’s two cats, who sat on my desk while I toiled over my work, scowling disapproval whenever I left to warm myself by the wood stove, make another cup of the ubiquitous tea with milk, or fry up a bit of sausage and mash. When the clouds parted, I would dash out for a four-mile walk along the river into town in my newly acquired Wellie boots and wax coat—the essential livery of all Welsh travelers. Such shades of green as there are in the countryside of Wales I have seen nowhere else but the Emerald Isle, which shares much the same climate.

While my words marched across the page, time marched on as well. I felt a tinge of uneasiness born of the impermanence of my situation. As much as I enjoyed life as a lodger in other people’s homes, it hardly seemed a good arrangement for the long term. Moreover, I remained in Great Britain only at the pleasure of the government, which had given me a maximum of six months to enjoy the privilege. Although my grandfather was born in London in 1878, this afforded me, as an American, no special right to remain in the country of his birth. I had to get out by April 12, 2016, per the warning clearly stamped on my passport. I needed a plan. Once again I looked to the sea.

A well-found cruising sailboat is a many-splendored thing: a magic carpet, a snug and safe home in all weathers, a marvel of engineering, a figment of romance, a bearer of dreams. I should know. I have loved many of them and lost two of them at sea. Acquiring a third seemed to tempt fate, but I had safely called fate’s bluff when I left America. I knew the sailing life as well as I knew any life outside a courtroom. I warmed to the idea of another boat, but it would have to be a modest vessel at a modest price. There are many such boats, forgotten and unloved, with good bones and strong hearts, languishing in the marinas of the world. It was just a matter of finding the right one.

Nevemore in La Palma.

Nevermore in La Palma.

My search for the particular magic carpet that would carry me away started in November 2015 and took me along Britain’s remarkable railway system to Plymouth, on the southern coast, Walton-on-Naze, in the East, and Pwllheli (pronounced “Pull-HELLY”) in northern Wales. But these travels revealed no suitable vessel for my adventure. I despaired of the sailing plan altogether and considered finding new lodging for the spring and summer elsewhere, but before long an old British-built boat—one of the famed Nicholson 32s by Camper-Nicholson–caught my eye. There reportedly are more people who have flown in outer space than have circumnavigated in small sailboats, but no fewer than eight Nicholson 32s have circled the globe. The great number of them still available on the used boat market in Britain and elsewhere is testament to their sound construction.

St. Paul's Cathedral, London.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

I moved from Wales to London in January, continued to toil away at The Passage, and in February purchased the 1967 Nicholson 32 that I renamed Nevermore, borrowing from Poe’s famous poem, The Raven. My reasons were not as macabre as Poe’s. The name for me signified that this was my last chance. There would never be another boat, another time, or another hope for the sailing adventure of my dreams. She would not only be my home. I resolved to take her around the world. When all was ready, I sailed into the English Channel at Calais, bound for the Canary Islands.

The passage to the island of La Palma spanned eighteen days and a total of 2,215 miles for an average speed of a little more than five miles per hour—my longest and most successful nonstop ocean passage to-date. Most of that time was spent hundreds of miles out to sea, but for two days a southwest gale forced me close to the northwestern tip of Spain. I sailed within twenty miles of the cliffs of Finisterre, where I had finished the Camino seven months earlier and sat wondering where life might take me next. Then, I had never dreamed it would take me once again to sea, much less to the very patch of ocean before my eyes. After the disaster that had befallen Prodigal the year before, seeing the volcanic peak of La Palma rise 8,000 feet on the horizon on the morning of May 23, 2016, after eighteen days alone at sea, was not just a thrill. It was a requiem for all that I had lost.

As I write these words, I am enjoying life back in London while Nevermore tugs at her dock lines in La Palma. The next passage, 3,100 miles nonstop across the Atlantic to St. Lucia, looms large in my imagination. Hurricane season must pass first, but it will pass. If all goes as planned, I will board a plane for La Palma in December, and Nevermore will sail again in January. It is already September, but there is yet a little time to savor the past and ponder the vast unknown that has become my future—a pilgrimage to my own dreams. Yet as ethereal as dreams can be, today the ground feels surprisingly firm under my feet.

When I finished the Camino and arrived in Finisterre—a village whose name means literally “the end of the earth”—it seemed I had nowhere else to go. The eruptions that had ended my marriage and thrown my feet upon the Way of St. James had been violent and transformative. As if to underscore the all-too-real fact that I had been pushed to the brink—to the end of my rope, as I described it at the time—I had followed the pilgrim way to that most final of all ending places, where lost souls seeking absolution had for centuries literally chased God into the sea. But as I would come to learn, that place and that time was not the end—not the end of the world, or my life, or of me.

The strange and wonderful truth about volcanoes is that, for all their destructiveness, they are the only things on Earth that can actually create something new under the sun. While climbing the summit in La Palma last June, I heard hikers remark that there are acres of land formed by volcanic eruptions on the island that are only fifty years old. Imagine that. After four billion years, the Earth is still erupting and reinventing itself. Why should we be any different?

The view from the rim of the volcano on La Palma.

The view from the rim of the volcano on La Palma.

In the year since I wept in a nameless wood as a friendless foreigner on Irish soil, much of the chaff in my life has been burned away. All of my clothes now fit in a small carry-on bag, and I still feel like I have too much. Everything else I own, including the boat on which I will live and travel, fits into a thirty-two by nine-foot space. I have developed a visceral aversion to shopping and the acquisition of “things.” I want for nothing—not because I have so much, but because the things I value are so few and mostly free. I earn a pittance from my novels, but I owe no one a dime. Yet for all I have lost, whole new vistas have appeared as if by magic before my eyes.

There are people in countries all over the world—fellow pilgrims I met along the Way of St. James—who know my name and share a special part of my memories, who wish me well and carry my good will in return. They follow my progress through life as I follow theirs. There are people here in London and all across England and Wales who think of me, worry about me, love and care for me. These are souls who were unknown to me and I to them before the eruptions in my life cast me out into the void. They softened my fall. They are as new soil under my feet, the firm ground upon which I travel. “Leap,” John Burroughs wrote, “and the net will appear.” How very true. If only we could so believe, what a solid footing, and a loving embrace, we would find.

 

 

Au Revoir

Michael Hurley aboard Nevermore in Calais, France, May 2, 2016.

Michael Hurley aboard Nevermore in Calais, France, May 2, 2016.

The French have a wonderful way of saying goodbye that seems appropriate for the start of a sailing voyage. It’s not goodbye at all but rather, “until we meet again.”

I write these words late at night in a café in Calais whose lovely and charming wait staff have suffered gladly the use of their facilities and Internet connection long after my moules mariniere were a happy memory. (To be fair, all French girls seem lovely and charming to me.) The Nevermore lies contentedly in the well-protected Calais marina, where the showers are hot and the bathrooms cleaner than those in any home I have ever owned. The harbormaster, Etienne, made sure I was looked after and insisted there was no rush to leave. But leave I must, tomorrow morning, with the tide. The weather and the wind are too perfect not to go. Everything is ready, and so am I. Once again, I recite the words of the classic Richard Hovey poem, “The Sea Gipsy”:

I am fevered with the sunset,
I am fretful with the bay,
For the wander-thirst is on me
And my soul is in Cathay.

There’s a schooner in the offing,
With her topsails shot with fire,
And my heart has gone aboard her
For the Islands of Desire.

I must forth again tomorrow!
With the sunset I must be
Hull down on the trail of rapture
In the wonder of the sea.

The island of my desire is a tiny volcanic eruption named La Palma, in the Canary Islands, exactly 1660 nautical miles from the end of the pier at Calais. From that starting point, I will execute the first of three complicated navigational maneuvers to make my landfall: two lefts and a right.

So it is goodbye at last to Paris, and to Calais, and to France, the country where I have been a happy if accidental resident for more than a month, beginning with a well-intentioned trip to comply with the six-month limit on my British tourist visa, followed by an unintended extension of that trip when Britain decided they’d had just about enough of me and my filthy American money—or, as comedian Stuart Lee might have put it, “comin’ over here, buyin’ the boats we’re tryin’ to sell, puttin’ our trades people to work, not usin’ a penny of taxpayer money, and obeyin’ the law.”

But enough bitterness, even if it is good fun to tease our stoic British allies. Much is right with the world. I have at long last a good ship and “a star to steer her by.” I have kind friends, a loving family, a new novel in the offing, fresh air in my lungs, and a spring in my step. All this and “the wonder of the sea.” What more could any man want?

Down the Rabbit Hole with Border Control

The sloop Nevermore awaits her lost captain in Burnham-on-Crouch, England.

The sloop Nevermore awaits her lost captain in Burnham-on-Crouch, England.

Well, it’s official. Queen Elizabeth and I have finally come to a parting of the ways. And so it seems only fitting at this time to say farewell and look back at my six-month sojourn in that “green and pleasant land” of my grandfather’s birth. An essay about what I learned of life in England and Wales during my time there is soon to follow. But first, a bit of background and some well-earned grousing about the manner of my leaving:

 

Those who have followed my Tale of Woe are aware that, after coming to England last fall on a winter sabbatical to complete my third novel (which I happily did), I got the wild hare to buy yet another yacht and sail it around the world. This plan was all well and good, the only problem being that the six months of leave expressly granted to me as a tourist to remain in the UK (as clearly stamped on my passport) was due to expire on April 12, whereas some very necessary repair and refurbishing of the vessel by a British boatyard was not due to be completed until the end of April. Moreover, the season during which it is considered safe to cross the often treacherous Bay of Biscay on the way to the Canary Islands—my first port of call—does not begin, in the eyes of sailors much more seasoned and expert in matters of weather than I, until May 1.

So, being a lawyer charged with the duty to obey, not flout the law, I did what no normal person in his right mind would do: I dutifully left the UK on March 31 to come to France for a one-week holiday, then presented myself with my passport again at the border on April 7 with a polite request to re-enter the country and remain there, legally, for the few weeks necessary to pick up my new boat and go. I did this rather than simply overstay my visa by a piddling few weeks during which British authorities would have been neither interested in my affairs nor any the wiser about them. As proof of my bona fides, I presented to the UK Border Control officer at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris the bill of sale for the boat and a letter from the British yard stating that I had hired them to perform repairs expected to be completed by May 1 for my departure from the country on a passage to the Canary Islands at that time. On the form presented to Border Control, I asked for leave to return to the UK for up to two months, through June 7, in the unlikely event repairs took a little longer than expected or weather did not permit a departure precisely on May 1. This nefarious conduct of mine, I was to come to learn, is what passes for criminal intent in the eagle eyes of the British Border Control.

After being removed from the queue of passengers waiting for the Eurostar train bound for London, I was taken to an interrogation room where I was asked, in that decidedly suspicious and accusatory tone unique to law enforcement officials, a series of questions about my “activities” in the United Kingdom for the past six months—questions about where I had lived, the people with whom I had associated, whether I had ever sought to use the National Health System, how I had supported myself, and why I had not returned to the United States in all that time. I answered these questions politely and truthfully, to wit: that I had lived as both a renter and a guest in private homes and hostels in London and Wales, spent that time writing a novel, had not taken a job or a dime of the British taxpayers’ money, and was supporting myself from my own savings on a well-deserved world tour after a thirty-two year career as an attorney licensed by two state bars before which I remain in good standing.

After my interrogation I was asked to present myself to French authorities who, at the direction of the UK border control guard, frisked me and ransacked my wallet and my luggage—presenting, with suspicious glances to the border guard, credit card receipts for the escargot I had eaten during my crime spree in Paris. One item retrieved from my wallet was a business card I recently had printed up in the humble expectation it might help me sell a book or two. “Michael Hurley, Author,” it said, with an email address, my website, and the UK number of a mobile phone I had purchased in London to be able to call friends and family from overseas inexpensively. With this “evidence,” I was to learn, the UK Border Control had discovered my secret plot.

I was informed that I was being “detained” under some unknown provision of British law, after which I was taken to a room where I was fingerprinted and presented with a written decision by the border control, to be placed on record under my passport number, that in the judgment of my interrogator I did not intend to leave the UK on a sailboat but rather to reside there permanently and illegally, for which purpose I had conceived the brilliant strategy of leaving the UK and coming to France, presenting myself to border control, and inviting them to discover my scheme.

An hour later I walked out of the Gare du Nord in a daze and found my way to a local hostel, where I have remained for the past three weeks—enjoying some extra time in Paris as best I can, under the circumstances, while trying to coordinate the logistics of a major ocean voyage by email and telephone. When the repairs to my boat are complete, a hired captain and crew will sail the boat across the English Channel to meet me in Calais. From there I will venture out into the busiest shipping lane in the world, alone, on a two-thousand mile passage aboard a boat I will have never had the opportunity to sail before, without setting foot again on British soil. May God help me.

And so it is surely with good reason we hear that the government of Great Britain is struggling to make ends meet, my friends. I would guess that several trainloads of indigent migrants looking to flail themselves onto the breast of that country’s social welfare system have passed through Gare du Nord undetected these past three weeks, while Border Control can boast of a perfect record in keeping American yachtsmen and the money they would seek to inject into the British economy safely away.

But as with every hurdle in life—and to be fair, this hardly qualifies as much of a hurdle at all—we learn something about ourselves and the world in which we live. For most of my adult life I have been safely ensconced in the American upper middle class, with an income that placed me in the top five percent of the population. I have a college degree and a law degree. My children went to private schools and expensive summer camps. I belonged to private country clubs and yacht clubs and took expensive skiing and sailing vacations, staying in high-priced hotels in places like Aspen, New York City, the Bahamas, and Martha’s Vineyard. Most of my friends were and are people just like me. I represented the interests of large corporations as a partner in a major law firm, and I have been responsible for a payroll employing many people who themselves were safely ensconced in the upper middle class. I have never been charged with a crime, and before I could qualify as a member of the bar in Texas and North Carolina I had to undergo an extensive investigation of my character by the FBI during which employers, friends, and neighbors going back to my teenage years were interviewed. So it was fairly laughable to me that a gate officer with the UK Border Control could reach the conclusion she did.

Except that she wasn’t laughing. And soon, neither was I.

It is a sobering and distressing thing not to be believed, not to be trusted—to have our honest and good intentions given the most sinister and unflattering interpretation possible. And yet this impoliteness is something that many who are not safely ensconced in the upper echelons of polite society experience every day and come to expect as normal. Until you experience it yourself in some small way and are unceremoniously lumped in with a segment of society with whom you would otherwise have almost nothing in common, it’s hard to understand how it must feel.

While (my British friends would say whilst) I was living in England and taking my time there for granted, I once watched a British TV show featuring real-life encounters with border control. Episodes showing foreigners being interrogated by crafty agents and thwarted in their attempts to illegally work in or enter the UK were offered as a form of entertainment to the British public. I found the show horrifying and remember thinking so at the time. The imbalance and abuse of power was stark. Here were mostly low-income, uneducated Eastern European migrants, some struggling with English, who were looking for a means to support themselves and their families, being not just questioned but fairly taunted and bullied by agents relishing their power and their superior command of the language and the situation. The lack of humility and compassion made me embarrassed for Britain. There was a kind of ugliness about it. I felt uneasy watching it, and so I turned it off. A few weeks ago in the Gare du Nord Station, this show was turned back on for me, and I found myself in a starring role.

We would do well to have more compassion for those who find themselves on the periphery of the safe places where most of us live our lives. Welcome to the stranger and compassion for the traveler are traditions and values sadly lost amid all the shouting about immigration and refugees and borders. One of the most memorable lessons of my travels as a pilgrim and a nomad across 500 miles of the Camino in Spain was a verse I read written on a wall in Castrojirez. It said, simply, that the great illusion of our time on Earth is the notion that “I am here, and you are there.” The truth is, we are all in this together, all waiting on the same border, all travelers eager for a better life, a bit of comfort, and a place called home.

Women’s Work: The American Cathedral in Paris

The American Cathedral in Paris

The American Cathedral in Paris

It was a glorious morning today at the American Cathedral in Paris, where the choral service at eleven brought back fond memories of my home church, Grace Cathedral, in Charleston. I had the distinct pleasure to hear the homily given by the dean of the cathedral, Lucinda Laird. Dean Laird is one of that rare breed of Episcopal priests in the vein of Nancy Allison and John Zahl who have a Calvinistic zeal for good preaching, and that was certainly in evidence this morning. Elaborating on the story in The Book of Acts, chapter 11, verses one through eighteen, she explained how revolutionary the idea was in the first century that the gospel should be given to non-Jews. In comparison, she noted her own astonishment as a member of the Episcopal Church at a time some decades ago, when women priests were still unknown, at seeing trailblazer Bea Blair raise the Eucharist during mass. Upon hearing a female priest say the words of the liturgy, “this is my body,” a young Lucinda Laird understood fully for the first time that that P1000757sacrifice was indeed meant for her and her own flesh instead of as something one step removed in the body of a man.

It pains me somewhat to think that we are still in a place and time theologically in which female priests must so often speak of being female as black politicians speak of being black. No one, I am quite sure, is interested in my thoughts on being male. But lest we forget, not far from the altar of the American Cathedral in Paris where the Eucharist was celebrated today by two women priests of outstanding caliber, competence and holiness, stands another altar in the same place it has stood for over a thousand years, and yet at the altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, no woman is yet welcome to consecrate the host. So, therefore, the quest for understanding continues, but we are fortunate to have such guides for the journey as Lucinda Laird and many like her who remind us P1000755what a gift much of the world is missing in the priestly wisdom of women.

 

The French Law of Pastry and Women

Paris, 20 April 2016, along the Boulevard de Hausmann

Paris, 20 April 2016, along the Boulevard de Hausmann

Somehow, I always knew it would be the French—that they would have the answers to the burning questions about life and love. And, of course, they do. As I sit alone here in Paris, that liveliest and loveliest of cities, this wisdom came to me in an unexpected, artistic, nuanced, metaphorical and, therefore, quintessentially French sort of way. I learned it through pastries.

Women and pastries are about choices. There are lots of them. They are rich and lovely and, taken in quantity, potentially very bad for you—fatal, to be sure, even if you do go in a rather pleasant, somnolent, and satisfied condition, rising on dust clouds of powdered sugar to heaven. But if you don’t wish to die or become disabled and no longer able to function you cannot have them all. You must choose.

The thing about pastries and women is that you cannot try before you buy—at least not without a lot of shouting and unhappiness and recrimination and demands for payment of damages. You must choose before you try and damn well not complain about your choice after you do, because there won’t be another. Herein enters the need for a method of choosing. Some criteria. On this score, French pastry chefs make your job as difficult as possible.

First of all, the selections are behind a glass case, where they cannot be touched or smelled but rather only admired from afar. You look. You lust. You dream of what lies within that glistening, creamy exterior. But you do not know. Not really. And the pastry chef, who is conspiring with the pastries to deceive you and who in any event is French and does not speak your language, has no interest in telling you. Even if he did, words would fail him, because the experience for good or ill is beyond description. And so you stand there, looking.

P1000708Your eyes are naturally drawn to the most spectacular, exquisitely rendered, and shiniest candidates. These seem precious to you. A perfectly round lemon tart catches your eye. She is so very yellow, and the flourish of dark chocolate resting on top, in the middle, sets off her color magnificently. Her crust is even and unblemished. A shimmering glaze covers her filling. She calls to you from within her glass prison. You answer. “I’ll have that one, please,” you say.

You think you see a flicker in the pastry chef’s eye as he fills your order that suggests you haven’t chosen quite as wisely as you might, but you are too busy arranging the particulars of payment and delivery to dwell on this. Then, before you know it, you cradle the prize within your trembling hands. But soon, you experience the first taste. Then and only then is the truth known, the lesson, clear.

You have not chosen wisely, my friend. The lemon tart, while iridescent and beautiful, is bitter to the taste, a bit dry, with a crust that is not quite so soft as you imagined, and filling that is less substantial than you’d hoped. You look longingly behind the glass at the large, rough, and pleasingly misshapen croissant bulging with a soft, creamy middle, and she looks forlornly back at you. “You might have chosen me and been happy,” she says, “but alas . . .”

P1000709And so you and the lemon tart walk on dejectedly together. You do not bother to finish her. There is not enough café au lait in all of France to help you choke down that stale crust. All your thoughts are for the plump croissant. But even if the lemon tart is bitter, you are not. For this is Paris, where longing of the heart is a celebrated, national agony, where absence makes the heart grow fonder, and where great symphonies and literature of legendary magnificence have been written of the beignet that got away.

A Few Thoughts Before The Voyage

Paris, 20 April 2016.

Paris, 20 April 2016.

And so it begins. Another vessel. Another voyage. Another harbor. Another long-awaited, dreamed-of, hoped-for landfall. The old gnawing fear, once more. The old intelligence that always listens to fear for what counsel it may offer, met by the same understanding that fear is a junior officer not well suited for command. There is no help, no life, no answer, no hope but to make way, to forge ahead, to go at last to sea again.

Those who have never faced the ocean alone for days upon weeks in a small boat—faced the darkness, the mystery, the violence, the sheer power, the utter vastness, its pitiless yet beautiful indifference—have no clue. Giddy and well-meaning offers to “come along for the ride” are met with knowing and protective smiles. You do not want to be with me, friend, when the place we now know as “there” finally, chillingly, unalterably, becomes “here.” Here, there be dragons. Here, there be demons. Here, there be places within yourself to which you have never travelled and where you do not wish to go. Trust me. Rest peaceably in your easy chair, by the warm fire and the glow of the television set, dry and safe and filled with sweet foods and comforted by the purring of your cat and the loyalty of your dog and the caress of your lover. I do not take this way because I will. I take it because I must.

I have stepped up to safety from two vessels left battered and crippled at sea. There will not be a third. Not for nothing is the one on which I now sail named Nevermore. On this boat I will go around or I will go down, but there will be no going back. There is no other vessel, no other life, no other time, no other heading. This vow comes from the heart of a realist, not a hero or a martyr. I love my life and surely wish to keep it. Mine is no great valor. We all face the same fate unawares. None of us is long for this world. We are all sailing aboard the Nevermore.

The Passage to Come

oct11-picofthemonthNews from London, 4 February 2016 . . . It is finished! At exactly 2:20 p.m. today, I typed the last keystroke of my latest novel, The Passage. It is 94,626 words and 378 pages in all. For the sake of comparison, that’s roughly as long as The Hobbit (95,022 words) and twice as long as The Great Gatsby (47,094 words). Of course, if literary greatness were measured in ink, the Code of Federal Regulations would be in the New York Times top 10. The Passage is not a letter longer or shorter than it needed to be to tell the curious tale of Jay Danforth Fitzgerald and his stowaway . . .

Needless to say, I am well past my deadline for the planned January 2016 release of this book. This delay I blame squarely on the intoxicating beauty of Wales. The manuscript now goes into the meat grinder of editing and production. It will be released through Ingram in hardcover in the Spring and available wherever books are sold. Stay tuned for details about the date, etc.

In other news, after rolling around Europe for the past six months, licking my wounds from the loss of the Prodigal, I have decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and get back on the horse that threw me. I have acquired a stout sailing vessel and named her the Nevermore, after Poe’s famous poem, for she is my last ship, my last hope for glory, and my last chance to achieve the dream of sailing alone around the world. There will never be another time, and there will never be another boat. She is a 1967 Camper Nicholson 32, built to Lloyds standards in England by a venerable shipyard with a history going back to the Napoleonic wars. (Her sister ship shown at sea in the photo above.) I am planning a May 2016 departure on a solo voyage around the world that will begin with a 2,000 mile passage from Brighton, on the south coast of England, to La Palma, a small volcanic island in the Canaries, off the coast of North Africa. The release of The Passage will be timed to coincide with the start of the voyage, hopefully with some publicity in the British press. I will have, as before, the ability to communicate with my friends on Facebook from aboard ship in route. I look forward to having all of you along on what promises to be the ride of a lifetime. Much more news, photos and updates to come in the months ahead!

Atlantic Circle: a review

untitledKathryn Lasky is well known as a prolific author of award-winning and popular children’s books. Her Guardians of Ga’Hoole series became a major motion picture (Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoolereleased by Warner Brothers in 2010.  She is not as well-known—but by golly she ought to be—for her sailing memoir, Atlantic Circle, published by Norton in 1985 under her married name, Lasky Knight, and recently released on Kindle. 

I bought the hardcover copy of Atlantic Circle the year it came out, when I was a newly minted lawyer looking for ways to dissolve the extra money I was bringing home from my first real job.  I found the most efficient money-solvent on Earth in a sailboat shop not far from my first apartment. I shudder to think of all the dollars washed down the wakes of various sailboats I have owned since then (four sloops, one cutter, two catboats, and one ketch), thanks in part to Ms. Lasky’s little book.

Atlantic Circle is a wonderfully conversational and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny look at the macho business of crossing an ocean in a small boat, told by the self-confessed “Jewish American Princess” shanghaied aboard a thirty-foot ketch given to her and her husband Chris as a wedding present.  Lasky objects at first to the princess label but concedes that if it means having “money and privilege,” she and her sister fit the term growing up. “We were indulged but not spoiled,” she says. “There is a difference, I think.” In reading Lasky’s story, the difference couldn’t be more apparent. Clearly, Christopher Knight found himself a longsuffering pearl of a girl. In fact, after reading about her seventy-year-old mother Hortense, green with seasickness but soldiering on after joining her daughter for a rough European leg of the voyage, one can scarcely doubt that this strength of character runs in the family.

Those looking for another overblown installment in the sailing-adventure genre will not find one here, thank God. Lasky spends just enough time describing precipitous breaking waves, purple squalls, and howling gales to give the reader a feel for the experience and no more. Instead, we are invited on long meanders through the author’s past before joining her inward journey as the often terrified, sometimes despondent, but always faithful crew. Speaking to us from a windswept deck in the North Sea or from the bunk where the author often hunkered, below, her writing sparkles throughout. The reader gets the sense of sitting down for a chat about life, good food, and the pursuit of happiness with a thoughtful, wise and witty friend.

Kathryn_Lasky

The author, then.

The story begins with what Lasky describes as “the bargain in the sky.” While riding along and imagining a fiery death in the small plane flown by Chris as he barnstorms the rocky coast of Maine, Lasky agrees to cross the Atlantic in a sailboat if Chris will give up flying. A bargain is struck, and the die is cast.

Before we weigh anchor with the newlyweds, we get a closer look at the families on both sides of the aisle and the “fundamental differences” between the two. While Chris and his New England kin are the saltiest of salty dogs, Kathy describes herself as “strictly an ‘amber waves of grain’ sort.” Her father dabbled in racing Thistles on a lake in the Midwest, but only briefly. When her mother fell during a sail change and her father started yelling encouragement, Kathy remembers her mother, “still bleeding,” saying in a “dangerously sweet voice,” “Marven, you know what you can do with your goddamn spinnaker?”

The first leg of the voyage follows the shorter but more arduous northern Atlantic route to Europe from New England—the same one the Titanic failed to complete coming the other way. This route is recommended for August departures from the U.S. to ensure good weather and westerly winds in the higher latitudes, but Lasky and her husband leave in June when, predictably, they encounter fog, cold, and two prolonged spells of winds above forty knots right on the nose. But with youth, luck, pluck, and love on their side, somehow they make it all work.

An endearing quirkiness comes across in photos of Lasky as a gangly young bride, girded for battle in a wool watch cap and weathers against a background of foggy, bleak seas, fearing death no less than she did in the air but sticking to the “bargain” and managing a pitiable, half-hearted smile for the camera. These images are all the more poignant after you have read about her as the girl who took water ballet in college and “eventually became the lead dolphin in a group called The Wet Dreams.” There is nothing about this woman that was made for a rugged life on the ocean, as she forlornly admits. And yet she goes. Along the way, despite an often vulnerable goofiness (she packs—and eats—dozens of bags of Pepperidge Farm cookies; she falls overboard in the canals of Europe; she hoists a storm jib upside down in a gale; she tosses her cookies and her favorite meal of the trip into the Med), Lasky’s grit and keen intellect always shine through.

untitled

The author, now.

Atlantic Circle was published before the Internet age, and the few reviews recently posted on Amazon don’t reflect this book’s enthusiastic audience at the time of its release. Judging from the snarkier comments, some readers have missed the point in complaining that the story does not move quickly in a straight line to the next wave, the next storm, the next port, and so forth. This is not fast food for the drive-through reader but a luxurious feast for the literary gourmand. It’s less about what happens next and more about why, exactly, two perfectly sane, healthy young people with careers, loving families, and lots to do right at home would say goodbye to all that for the desolation of the open ocean. The question begs for an answer, and while Lasky is never confident she knows what it is, she treats us to an intimate and often humorous look at her struggle to find one while keeping her sanity, her marriage, and her vessel intact. Somehow she manages to succeed in the end, discovering peace and balance at the water’s edge. We are richly rewarded by her journey.

Back to Happy: a review

24160411aAnd now for something totally different . . .

Actress Connie Bowman has written a wonderful new book. Flowing from the unfathomable grief of the loss of her first child, Meghan, to a congenital heart and lung condition at age six, it is a story filled with insight, advice and inspiration for women and mothers, especially, on how to navigate the tragedies that affect us all and find the way “Back to Happy.” The book as you might guess came to me in an unusual way.

Connie, her future husband Rob, and I attended a sleepy, small liberal arts college in the hills of Western Maryland in the seventies. Although I cannot recall a single intelligible word I ever said to her, I remember her well as the impossibly beautiful brunette whose photograph could have appeared in the dictionary beside the definition of the term, “out of my league.” For thirty years, I had no idea nor any reason to wonder what happened to Connie, but through the weird miracle of Facebook, I have come to admire her career and that of her famous second child, Caroline Bowman, a Broadway star known for her performances in Kinky Boots and as Eva Perone in Evita. Just last fall, Caroline, who is the image of her mother as a young girl, was cast as one of the two sisters leading the Broadway production of Wicked.

Back to Happy, A Journey of Hope, Healing, and Waking Up, sounds a number of themes familiar to women’s self-help literature but does so with an endearing freshness and authenticity born of Connie’s and Rob’s remarkable, personal story. At just 72 pages, it is a quick read in which the author imparts, in nine “lessons” divided into chapters, what she learned going through her own “dark night of the soul.” Meghan’s story is woven through these lessons as the author reveals the sources of a mother’s strength in coping with her daughter’s illness and death, including prayer, twelve-step recovery philosophy, yoga, Reiki, meditation, the experiences of friends, and a Christian view of the world as one in which God is in control. With these tools, she encourages those in suffering to practice acceptance as a path to peace.

The text is annotated with links to the author’s online podcasts and other helpful references. Although I was not able to access these on my Kindle Paperwhite, they are available on the author’s website. There, next to the author’s name, you will find her personal motto, “peaceful exuberance,” which well summarizes her central message. Back to Happy is a thoughtful and well-written book that will bring comfort and understanding to those in suffering. The author makes good on her promise to offer the reader tried and true methods to travel through life’s ups and downs “with more grace and ease.” It’s clear by the end of the book that Connie has done exactly that.

Available on Amazon in Kindle format, paperback, and audiobook.

Lies and Damned Lies

I have listened with weary amazement to conservative pundits crying “Liar, liar! Pants on fire!” in the wake of revelations about the Jonathan Gruber video. Gruber is the MIT economics professor who was paid by the Obama administration in 2009 to help design the laws that became Obamacare. Videos of various speeches he has given reveal that he and the politicians pushing Obamacare deliberately hid their underlying agenda to create a new health care tax in the guise of a law requiring healthy people to buy overpriced insurance they didn’t need. In other words, they lied—something heretofore unheard of in the sunny uplands of American legislative politics. In the words of Captain Renault, the GOP House caucus is “shocked, shocked,” to know that obfuscation for political gain is going on in Washington.

The obvious problem with this complaint is that the American people didn’t vote on and pass Obamacare; their duly elected representatives did. Regardless whether any of them chose to read it, there is not one iota of the law that was not published and put before legislators’ eyes before they voted on it. The concept of the individual mandate—along with the fee for noncompliance—was formally disclosed in the “discussion draft” of the bill published by Speaker Pelosi in June 2009, more than four months before the final vote. Laws may be enacted in a hodgepodge of haste and hurry, and Obamacare certainly was, but they are not enacted in secret.

Obamacare has been on the books and available for study by anyone who cared to read it, lo these past five years. When Justice John Roberts did exactly that and concluded that the individual mandate was, in fact, a “tax,” there was no hew and cry that this was a horrifying revelation as to how the law truly works. Yet, as the wails of “O, the humanity!” continue to rise from the smokestacks at Fox News over Jonathan Gruber’s dissembling now caught on tape, the giant granddaddy whopper lie of all time—one that, unlike Obamacare, has resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands and a trillion dollars (with a “T”) in needless spending—continues to underwhelm everyone on the Republican right. Everyone, that is, with one recent and notable exception.

One sentence in the November 12, 2014 column by conservative and Republican apologist George Will caught my eye.  Even those who don’t share Will’s view of the world would be quick to admit that he is a smart man and an astute political observer.  The Pulitzer Prize Committee certainly thinks so, as does his employer, The Washington Post. I’ve had my own doubts about Will’s powers of perception ever since he predicted that Mitt Romney would win with 321 electoral votes, but I have never doubted Will’s loyalty to the Republican cause.  That’s why his recent statement surprised me. Two days ago, Will described President George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq as “the worst foreign policy decision in U. S. history.”

Unpacking that remark would take some time, because that’s a lot of history to unpack.  Worse than Yalta. Worse than the Bay of Pigs. Worse than the Gulf of Tonkin.  But as the current imbroglio in the Middle East so tragically demonstrates, the decision by President Bush to invade Iraq is the gift that keeps on giving. The travesty of the Iraq War and its bloody, chaotic aftermath is that it was justified, solely and entirely, on an utter fabrication about the presence of, and imminent threat posed by, weapons of mass destruction. For proof of this enormously consequential lie, we need look no further than the book written by the man who sold it to the American people, their elected representatives, the UN and the world: General Colin Powell. In a portion of his memoir, It Worked for Me (Harper Collins, 2012), excerpted in Newsweek, Colin Powell made these startling admissions, which should shock and awe everyone a lot more than Jonathan Gruber’s flaming underwear:

My infamous speech at the U.N. in 2003 about Iraqi WMD programs was not based on facts, though I thought it was.

The Iraqis were reported to have biological-agent production facilities mounted in mobile vans. I highlighted the vans in my speech, having been assured that the information about their existence was multiple-sourced and solid. After the speech, the mobile-van story fell apart—they didn’t exist. A pair of facts then emerged that I should have known before I gave the speech. One, our intelligence people had never actually talked to the single source—nicknamed Curveball—for the information about the vans, a source our intelligence people considered flaky and unreliable. (They should have had several sources for their information.) Two, based on this and other information no one passed along to me, a number of senior analysts were unsure whether or not the vans existed, and they believed Curveball was unreliable. They had big don’t knows that they never passed on. Some of these same analysts later wrote books claiming they were shocked that I had relied on such deeply flawed evidence.  . . . Yes, the evidence was deeply flawed.  . . .  The leader can’t be let off without blame in these situations. He too bears a burden. He has to relentlessly cross-examine the analysts until he is satisfied he’s got what they know and has sanded them down until they’ve told him what they don’t know.

That’s right, folks. We went to war on the strength of a tip no one bothered to check out from a guy named “curveball.” Just let that one sink in for a moment. And to think Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” I’m no master spy, but even I would have qualms about launching the Sixth Fleet because “curveball” told me so.  Whoever in the CIA gave him that handle probably thought he was sending a pretty clear signal to be wary of the information this dude was pitching. Next time, maybe try “screwball.”

None of this story about Bush and Powell and the decision to invade Iraq is news, but it continues to reverberate in today’s headlines about ISIL and the crushing loss of so much of what Americans fought and died trying to build over there. The vaunted surge for which Bush is given much undeserved credit worked, but only in the sense that the little boy’s finger in the dike worked. Eventually the finger—and the troops—have to come out, and what we’re witnessing today is the breaking of the dam and the flood of Islamic extremism unleashed by the chaos Bush created.

With the civilization that was once Iraq now collapsing in flames and the mothers of 5,000 dead American service men and women left to wonder for what lasting purpose their children were sacrificed in that faraway land, you might think that the supreme architect of the Iraq War would be having some second thoughts. And you would be wrong.

A laughing, cheerful, and ever clueless George W. Bush recently took time out of his busy schedule of oil painting and ALS ice bucket challenges to appear for a laughing and cheerful interview with Bob Schieffer of Face the Nation Asked whether he had any regrets over the decision to invade Iraq, Bush said (and I am not making this up), “I think it was the right decision.” He went on to say that he fully supports the decision of his brother Jeb to run for president and intends to be a part of the campaign.  What can anyone say of this, except that all of us should be deeply troubled by any candidate who has George W. Bush in his brain trust.

If Americans feel they were fed a bunch of baloney about Obamacare, they can repeal it and restore the status quo. That’s the way laws are made and unmade.  Unfortunately, we can’t restore the thousands of lives and limbs that were squandered in what Maureen Dowd so aptly described as “that baloney war.” (c) 2014 M. C. Hurley

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