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A Camino and a Cause

Just under a week ago , I completed a pilgrimage begun last year on the Camino Portugues.  350km walked from Porto, Portugal to Muxia, Spain by way of Santiago de Compostela.  I’ll have more to say shortly about a lesson or two learned along the way, but for the moment, I’d like to tell you about a fundraising endeavour connected to the walk.


Here’s what I had to say on the fundraising page, which you’d be welcome to click on here should you wish to make a donation.  Even as I edit this, we’ve exceeded the goal I’d set by a couple of dollars, but since I’ve done all this typing and picture-pasting, I’m certainly open to exceeding it 🙂

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

But when I am only for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when?

– Rabbi Hillel, Ethics of the Sages 1:14

And with the passage above, the walk I’ve just completed along the Camino Portugues has been encapsulated.  As has this invitation to join me in supporting Heart to Heart, which brings Jewish- and Palestinian-Israeli* teens together – young people whose lives almost never intersect, though their homes are a short distance apart – for three weeks of summer camp in Ontario, Canada.

That’s the brief summary.  If it’s all you need to know, feel free to jump down and make a donation.  And if you’d like more details…


If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

In being for myself and giving rein to my love of long-distance walking, I have just completed a pilgrimage on the Camino Portugues.  Two weeks of walking last year, and two more this year – in total, about 350km (with about 18 lbs of backpack) from Porto, Portugal to Muxia, Spain, by way of Santiago de Compostela.  Oceans and forests, cobblestones and asphalt, solitude and camaraderie.  Heaven, in other words.


But when I am only for myself, what am I?

Throughout the pilgrimage, I engaged in spiritual practices – for instance, reciting brachot (blessings) to express gratitude for the wonders of nature and the workings of the body, counting the Omer to bridge the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, and reading the Ethics of the Sages, an ancient guidebook of rabbinic wisdom.  However much these practices might benefit me – and others by extension, I hope – I also wanted to do something more tangible.  As with last year, my pilgrimage has come to its end at Shavuot, a holiday where in ancient times, Jewish pilgrims offered the first fruits of their spring harvest to the Divine, while in more recent centuries, the practice has been to celebrate the receiving of Torah at Sinai.  What offering would I make, and how to celebrate Torah as expressed in the quotes I have here from Hillel and Shimon ben Gamliel?


And if not now, when?

Having completed the Camino, I’ve now made an offering in the form of a $500 donation to Heart to Heart which, as I’ve mentioned, brings Jewish- and Palestinian-Israeli teenagers together for three weeks of camp in Canada – where they surrender their cell phones, live and learn, swim and hike, and work their way towards a deeper understanding of one another.  Then, once back in Israel, they participate in projects conceived at camp, towards the end of cultivating a shared society.  If interested, you can learn more about Heart to Heart’s educational approach here.

The $500 I’ve donated would cover the cost of supporting one of these youngsters in their post-camp endeavours, so already something has been accomplished.  I’m hoping you’ll consider adding to my donation.  Ideally, by June 30th, I’d love to see another $550 come in (bringing things to a total of $1,050), which covers the cost of a week of camp for one of the teens.  No amount you choose to give would be too small.  Canadian donors will receive a charitable tax receipt.

So if you’re inclined, please join me in supporting Heart to Heart.

(*The term “Palestinian-Israeli” refers to Arabs who are citizens of Israel, as opposed to those living in the occupied territories.  They’ve often been described as Arab-Israelis, but many prefer to be known as Palestinian citizens of Israel.)

The world is sustained on three principles:

on truth, and on justice, and on peace.

– Shimon b. Gamliel, Ethics of the Sages, 1:18




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Postcards from Here: silhouettes and shadows

(more field notes from the world)

I love the layers that Paul Simon has brought to his music over the years


But equally, I love the perfect simplicity of his early song, Bleecker Street…


“I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand…”


And so….silhouettes touching silhouettes


And a little shadow magic, too

And a link to the simple, sad and beautiful Bleecker Street




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Postcards from Here: sense-temple time

(more field notes from the world)


It is our minds that make our lives so homeless. 


We need to come home to the temple of our senses.


Our bodies know that they belong to life, to spirit.

– John O’Donahue, 1956-2008 *

* For what I hope qualify as artistic purposes, I’ve sequenced  Mr. O’Donahue’s phrases out of the order in which he offered them


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Postcards from Here: Earthwalking

(a series on paying attention to what’s in front of me)

“The great miracle is not to walk on the air or to walk on water or fire, but to be able to walk on the Earth.”

– Rinzai, ninth-century Zen master










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Postcards from Here: visiting radical amazement

(a series on paying attention to what’s right in front of me)

It’s been on my mind to “upgrade” from my current camera, which has served me exceedingly well the past six or seven years to a new one (performs better in low light, indoors, etc. etc.).  I may well give in.  But this past week, whenever I thought about going into a store and checking it out, I found myself preferring instead to be in the street with my tried-and-true.


Sunday: Montreal metro


Skylight, Gare Centrale (Central train station), Montreal…might not have seen it had it not been for a two-hour delay in departure…sometimes we need to be forced to notice….I do, anyway

“Just as we are commanded to love man, we are also called upon to be sensitive to the grandeur of God’s creation.


Tuesday in Toronto

“We are infatuated with our great technological achievements; we have forgotten the mystery of being, of being alive.


Wednesday,: momentary siesta for Bay Street

“We have lost our sense of wonder, our sense of radical amazement at sheer being.”

“Choose Life,” Abraham Joshua Heschel*



(spoiler alert: I think I’ll keep an eye out for colour for the next post)

* Thank you, Rabbi Aviva Goldberg for putting Heschel’s reflections on technology and wonder in front of Congregation Shir Libeynu often enough that they’ve taken up residence in my RAM, not to mention my mind.


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Being the Signs: Winning Within (or what practice makes possible)

“Win within,” my teacher says.

“Been there, done that, didn’t buy the wristband,” I could respond.  It wouldn’t be overly audacious, given that my teacher is an advertising slogan on a bus shelter.  But I hold my tongue, and think back instead to my recent encounter with the  sentry at the Irish festival.

Jenni, a friend of a friend, was in town for the Toronto International Film Festival.  As her tour guide for an evening, I suggested going to the islands across the harbour, a favourite respite from downtown concrete. 

Light off Building

As the ferry neared the island, we spotted signs for an Irish festival at one of its restaurants.  Not the peaceful setting I had in mind, but Jenni’s the guest in town and she gets to make the call.  And her call is the festival.  We order a couple of helpings of nachos in the restaurant, and are given a number to put on our table for the server to track us down.  Stepping onto the patio, we join a picnic table of celebrants.  While Jenni talks with them about Brexit and its potential impact for Ireland, I become distracted, wondering how our server will find us in such a loud and crowded space.  I head back in and discover I know what I’m worrying about.  Food is only served inside, and our number is up next.


Toronto Island green (from a previous visit)

I start my way back to Jenni, but am stopped by a guy in a plastic green top hat, his arm lowering with the gravity of a railroad crossing gate.

“I need to see your wristband, friend,” he says.

“Sorry?” I say.

“You need to buy one of these,” the sentry says, holding out a fistful of green wristbands, “if you want to join the festivities.”

“Wristband?  No, that’s okay.  A friend and I just came out here.  No one said anything about a wristband.  So I’ll just get her and-”

“That’s not going to happen.  If you want out there, you get a wristband here.”

“Listen,” I say, resenting having been cut off.  “My friend and I bought food inside.  We were given a number to take to our table.  We went outside.  No one stopped us.  No one said anything about wristbands.  I just want to get her and we’ll go back in.”

“I’ll get your friend,” he says.  “Where is she?”

I roll my eyes.  Not with my inside voice.

“She’s at the far end of the patio.  She’s wearing a navy blue dress and the number on the table-”

“Go ahead,” he says, opening his palm and waving me through. 

Still steaming, I find Jenni, and explain what’s going on with our food.  She exchanges goodbyes with her newfound friends, and as we head back in, it occurs to me that I’m bound to cross paths with the sentry again, and I start to anticipate ways to even the score – maybe wave the table number in front of him.  But almost as quickly as I have the thought, I realize it won’t get me anywhere.  Getting even might feel good in the moment, but it’ll also perpetuate an unhappy temper I won’t enjoy carrying around afterwards.  I decide to let it pass.

Before I know it, he’s in front of me.  Again, lowering his hand. 

“I owe you an apology,” he says, shaking my hand.  “That was a dick thing to do.” 

He’s not a professional doorman, just a volunteer trying to make things happen right.  Which he’s now doing by wrapping wristbands around our arms.  “These are on the house,” he says. “Enjoy the festival.”  Not only are the wristbands free, but so am I, that much more able to enjoy the mediocre nachos in the restaurant, and then afterwards, the blues harmonica we catch once back downtown. 

Everything is Possible

translation: Everything is Possible

I like to think my mindfulness practice has something to do with my having found the pause button, allowing antagonism to morph into affinity.  After all, if I’m going to spend twenty minutes on a meditation cushion most mornings, it would be nice to see tangible benefits.  I’ll never know, of course; cause-and-effect with practice is seldom that clear.  But I do know that because of my practice, I don’t go off the rails as often as I would otherwise, and when I do, I get back on more quickly, and the world enjoys the kinder part of me.

So when the advertising poster tells me to “win within,” yes I could respond with been-there-done-that.  But yes, I hold my tongue.  Or, if I’m to be honest, my tongue is held for me – I’m seldom that quick-witted, and the clever response only arrives days later.  But even if it had come to mind right away, I think I would have held back. 

Maybe one day when I’ve achieved enlightenment – let’s say , I don’t know, next month – and remember to win within a little more reliably, I’ll start getting lippy with my teachers.

Moving to the Light

Let’s get mindful

Pick a sign.  Any sign.  Or let it pick you.  Is there a teaching in it?  Or a suggested practice?  Unless you’re sure there isn’t, give it some consideration. See if it brings a shift in how you relate to the world or offers a reminder of something you sometimes lose sight of.  And then, as you go through your day/week/month, keep it in mind, and see where that takes you.


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Being the Signs: No Winter Maintenance

For a while, it appears Shabbat has intruded on my spiritual development.  But just when it looks like all is won, an encounter with organic pasta comes to my rescue, delivering me to this embarrassing, and perhaps necessary moment.


That’s what the sign had said at the entrance to a walking path a couple of weeks ago.  “Now there’s a practice,” I’d thought.  Deep freezes, floods, sabretooths, pogroms.  When we’ve survived them, it’s been largely thanks to our skills at steeling ourselves for troublesome seasons, whether the skies portend danger or all is sunshiny lightness.  But do I overdo winter maintenance?  Have I given my talent for anticipation of the worst more rein than my life really needs?

Rhetorical questions, both.


In the interest of presence, I didn’t take the camera with me on the walk..  This and the other images here come from other moments  in the world.

So this Shabbat, I tell myself, I will try to notice when I shift into winter maintenance mode.  And when it happens, I will ask whether it can be held off until after Shabbat, or if it’s necessary at all.

To be closer to my experience, I turn off my phone’s data and wifi.  Friends and family can still reach me, but hopefully this will free me from the pattern of “just” checking e-mail, which begets a visit to social media, which begets deep diving into online trivia and tragedy, which begets “where did I go?”

I awaken Shabbat morning, and lie on my bed a while, just enjoying the way the sun pushes through the blinds, shaping the embryo of a fiery dragon on the closet door.  Rising, I am more attentive to brachot, or blessings – malbish arumim / Who clothes the naked as I put on a t-shirt, thankful for the feeling of cotton against my body; ha’mechin mitza’dei gaver / Who makes firm a person’s steps as I walk to the bathroom, grateful for the ease with which I set one foot in front of the other. 

I give myself longer than normal on the meditation cushion, and then set out for a long walk in an unfamiliar ravine – intending, as best I can, to steer clear of winter maintenance and simply be where I am.  Unsurprisingly, attunement comes and goes.  One moment, I’m marvelling over the way the sun ignites the leaves of a tree, prompting me to recite oseh ma’aseh v’reisheet / Who forms the work of creation; the next moment, I’m making judgements about the runners and cyclists who outnumber me on this part of the path, seeming not to appreciate their surroundings.  And in my judgement, I am removing myself as far from the here and now as I imagine them to be.


So it goes.  They should.  I want.  Then the cloudscape above being all I need, it’s again oseh ma’aseh v’reisheet.

Entering more deeply into the walk, I’m in a landscape where others are clearly enjoying the environment for its own sake.  We make eye contact, strangers and I, exchanging a word or a smile.  

Perching myself on a rock by reeds sticking out of a pond where a quarry had once been, I read a little of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writings on Shabbat, when a young family passes, the wilder of the two mop-topped daughters screeching with excitement.

“We don’t exactly make for quiet reading,” the father apologizes.

“It’s life,” I say.  “It’s beautiful.”

Slowly but surely, Shabbat is threatening to undermine my spiritual development.


Mount Royal in Montreal one fine summer’s day

Not that I have fully succumbed to serenity.  When a twentysomething guy emerges from a field, proudly displaying a newfound walking stick to his companions, one of them calls him Gandalf, and I love them.  When they start punctuating every half-sentence “like,” I get over it.

But, as far as I can tell, Shabbat ease is holding winter maintenance away.  Although blotches of rust on leaves have made me aware that summer is waning, I can’t seem to get worried about it.  And sure, a few minutes ago, I found myself wondering how I might earn the best possible death bed experience, but that lasted a few seconds, and then it was back to here and now.

The walk takes me to a farmer’s market, and a booth offering organic pasta.  Whole wheat, easy to digest, the sign says.  Maybe I should give it a try.

And then I find myself thinking maybe I shouldn’t.  Because what if I love it – really love it – and want more?  Summer’s ending, and maybe the market’s about to close for the year.  What will I do without this organic pasta with which I’m in danger of being smitten?

I actually think these things.  Despite never once having loved, or even romanced, anything made from whole wheat.

Catching myself, I’m amused, a little embarrassed, and mostly proud.  I’ve managed to catch myself in winter maintenance mode and talk myself down.  I buy a few servings from the vendor.

To the extent I think about this for the next while, it’s mostly about writing this blog post.

But on the first morning of Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days and a period for self-reflection, I find myself thinking about other occasions, some significant, when I have denied myself joy for fear that its disappearance would be too painful to endure.  Not that my life has been without joy, but if I could, I’d like to have some of those moments back.

So as I enter 5778 – at a time when serious trouble seems to portend in every corner of the globe – when I’m fortunate enough to have portals to joy open before me, shall I retreat into winter maintenance or shall I step through?


Viana do Castelo, Portugal

Let’s get mindful

Pick a sign.  Any sign.  Or let it pick you.  Is there a teaching in it?  Or a suggested practice?  Unless you’re sure there isn’t, give it some consideration. See if it brings a shift in how you relate to the world or offers a reminder of something you sometimes lose sight of.  And then, as you go through your day/week/month, keep it in mind, and see where that takes you.


Share & Subscribe

 If you liked this, and want to see more, I wouldn’t say no to additional subscribers.  If you’re on a mobile device, scroll down about as far as you can, and enter your e-mail address in the Subscribe box.  If you’re on a computer, you’ll find the Subscribe box towards the top on the right-hand-side.

 And if you want to spread the word, there are buttons around here somewhere for sharing on Facebook and Twitter…


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