“Sir,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I just discovered something you seem to have left behind at security.”
He knew who I was, for I had been pulled out of line, for a more intense screening. No doubt, I look more dangerous with a beard!
He reached toward me, and poured into my hand the leftover pieces of my step counter, which had apparently gotten caught in the gears of some machinery.
There scattered across my palm, the circuitry board, a second memory piece, the screen, and battery.
I looked up at him and asked, “Did you happen to find the back and case?”
“I’ll go check,” he told me. He returned a moment later with the back and the case. He apologized again and left me with what was my faithful step counter that had counted over 1,000,000 steps on the camino.
Somehow I had imagined, that once I had all the pieces, I could rebuild it. But like Humpty Dumpty, my step counter could not be reassembled. I walked through customs, finally found a trash bin, and dropped my former step counter into it right before encountering the scary customs lady. I think some customs’ agents get special ‘meanness’ training. This woman had received an A in that training, I’m certain.
“Where were you while overseas?” She didn’t want any of the stories.
“Are you bringing anything back with you?” she snarled.
Am I bringing anything back with me? Certainly there were a few souvenirs, but hardly worth her time. I stood there for a moment. I’d just walked over 500 miles, spent a month painting and being, and had had the most glorious second honeymoon with Karen for our 35th imaginable, and all that, gets reduced to this one question.
“Are you bringing anything back with you?”
In Finisterre, the “end of the earth” I had stayed in a hotel at the top of a hill above the city. I had arrived there early in the afternoon, showered, changed, washed out some clothes, and hung them outside my third floor window in the sun to dry, when I looked in the mirror. Here I had just completed a huge journey, and it struck me: “What is there to show for this? What do I have to see, daily, that says, ‘you did this?'”
I wondered what I could do that would be a physical change, something visible to help me hold onto what God had done?
The only thing I could think of, that had never worked before, was a beard and mustache. Not quite like this one!
I texted Karen: “I want to change something physically. Partly I think to express the shift that has taken place in me over these days and perhaps out of fear that nothing has changed and perhaps for other unknowns. The only thing that came to mind, since the beer belly hasn’t worked, was a mustache and beard.” Before I left she had asked that I not grow one so that the pictures still looked like me. I told her that once it had grown in some, if she didn’t like it, I’d shave it off. She wrote back she would much prefer the beard to a beer belly!
Over the next month, alongside of my journey in Ireland and painting, this beard became my project. I watched a couple youtube videos on how to trim it (seriously, they exist). When Karen saw it in person, a month later, she said (after a couple days) she liked it. “It makes you look debonaire,” she told me. It’s a keeper! Yes!
Our daughter Grace hoped it would make me look older, but people still are shocked when I tell them I have grandchildren, so that didn’t work. Two employees helping us in a store in London, when they found out we have four daughters and three grandchildren were shocked.
“Honey, you look good,” they told Karen.
We showed them the family picture from our time at the beach in August, and were pointing out who’s who, when one of them pointed at me (in the picture) and asked me, “Oh, is that your dad?” Nope, didn’t work for looking older!
I was still standing there before the customs’ official, thinking of all those steps, the heartbreak, the hardships, the stretch of faith. I had returned with a heart as crushed as my discarded step counter, a heart more receptive to tears and to Jesus.
I stood there, spread my arms, and answered her, saying, “I’m bringing back myself, this changed life, a transformed self.” No response. Unimpressed.
“Is that your luggage you see on the screen?” she asked, not missing a beat.
“You may go.”
It is amazing how easy it is to leave a magical journey and return home.
We flew then from Dublin, the green of Ireland, the beauty of most of the people, except the scary customs’ lady, to Chicago. We stayed in the Chicago Airport 7 hours because of a flight delay. There we encountered wall-to-wall people in every terminal. In a sea of people, even though we all have names, families, hurts, dreams, jobs, and stories, we were anonymous. We paid to sit together on the last flight home. We ate dinner. We moved around in three different gate waiting areas before we had the word on which gate our flight departed from, and charged our phones.
While there I began to feel my awakened heart feeling the feelings of the transition home. There was never a moment when a “gate cleared out.” A planeload of people would depart, and the same number of people remained behind in the gate. Getting a place to sit was a trick. “No wonder people drink!” I thought.
As I sat in Chicago, I missed the people and the accents of Ireland. At one point I sat looking at some of my pictures, came to the one of Kinvara’s Farmer’s Market, and began to cry. How am I to return from this kind of journey and step right back into life at home? Karen and I both felt this in varying degrees. The time had been magical. Beautiful. A gift.
We arrived in Portland at about 1030 pm, got a picture of our feet again on the carpet of the Portland Airport, were joyfully greeted by our daughter Gabrielle, and driven home. There is that strange sense when you arrive home after being gone. You enter into your previous world and it can feel as if you never left.
I’ve shed more tears in the past few days than in the years of life before, it feels like. Truly I have returned with a “changed life” as I told the customs’ official, with a heart that has discovered new brokenness and wholeness.
Yet, I don’t know how to live into this.
I had an 8 am doctor’s appointment on Saturday morning. My doctor began trying to remember something my daughter Gabri had mentioned about my walk when Gabri had had her appointment a couple months back. My doctor couldn’t come up with enough of a description to capture the story, so asked, “Did anything significant happen to you on your walk?” I was reminded of the lady at customs:
“Are you bringing anything back with you?”
I was on the phone to a woman with the Kohl’s Charge Card named Valencia. It was 10 am on Saturday morning, and she asked how my weekend was going. “Well, I just returned last night after being gone for three months,” I told her. She was so excited for me. This person I’ll never see was supportive, encouraging, and ended the conversation saying, “Well, Mr Shimer, Welcome back to the real world.”
That phrase struck a cord. We’d arrived home to our internet down, mice in the garage, my car battery dead, tires low on air, piles of mail, bills to pay, and no more Camino funds, etc. When I took the car and tried to put air into the tires, one went fine, but the second, I watched, as the more I attempted to get air in, the lower and lower the pressure went in the tire. Much to my consternation, the tire was becoming visibly flatter. Eventually, I got it to fill. Yes, the “real world” was where we landed.
Karen and I have adopted strategies to change how we live together at home, and these have helped already as we cherish the many learnings of our time apart. But how I am to live in the work world yet eludes me. So, I’m trying to be present, to feel the emotions I have, continue to be as authentic as possible with this strange re-entry, and practice slowing down by taking off my shoes every few hours as I did on the Camino and breathe.
“You all drive on the wrong side of the road here,” I said to my admin, Josh, yesterday.
He answered, smiling, “Actually, Brian, we literally drive on the right side.”
But that’s not what it feels like. Life feels somewhat backwards, opposite here. It feels a bit scary. It moves too fast, seems to diminish people, and feels as if it could be all too easy to just slip into old patterns of life and lose my heart in the process.
Sunday I received an incredibly joyful welcome back, hugs all around, many tears shared, numerous compliments on the beard, a gift basket of goodies, and even a homemade frittata by Sandy Holt as a between-service snack. I was starting to leave, and had just opened my car door when Malachi, 16, one of our great teens, rode up on his bicycle, gave me this big hug, said, “Welcome Back, Brian!” and then he looked at me and said, “Wow. Cool Beard!” and rode off. What grace.
Wholeness. That’s what I am bringing back with me. It is not based upon the physical appearance, but is the byproduct of brokenness. And it doesn’t feel nor look as put together as I imagined. It comes full of tears and in the middle there’s this immensity of God’s grace.