Through the Eyes of a Traveler

I was walking through a small village on the Camino one afternoon—enjoying and appreciating all the beauty—when I noticed several villagers going about what looked like just another day. I wondered what it was like for them to live in such a magical place, to be surrounded by all this beauty day after day. Do they still see how extraordinary it is? Or are their eyes so accustomed to the beauty that it becomes dull and mundane?

Arcos, Camino Portugues

As for me, there was nothing dull or mundane about my Camino. It was as if I looked at life, at myself, and the world through a different lens…one that made every encounter meaningful, every moment magical, every experience inspiring. Was everything really so significantly different or were my eyes different?

It dawned on me that traveling brought forth a very different mindset; I was looking for the beautiful, I was expecting the miraculous. But we don’t have to travel a great distance to experience and appreciate the many gifts our life and world have to offer. We can witness beauty on our way to work. We can get inspired in our back yard. We can be touched by someone we see day after day. We simply need to take notice. Because beauty doesn’t fade…it is our eyes that are fading.

Watching the villagers reminded me of the experiment the Washington Post conducted in 2007. The newspaper placed a fiddler at a major Washington DC metro station and asked him to play the violin while reporters observed and recorded by-passers’ response to the music. In the 45 minutes that the fiddler played, more than 1,100 people walked by, but only seven (!) stopped for at least a minute to enjoy the performance. When asked upon exiting the station, many people didn’t even recall their path crossed a musician, only a few feet away.

But the musician, that fiddler dressed in jeans and t-shirt, was Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the world. Typically, Bell’s talents are appraised at up to $1,000 a minute. That day at the metro, playing an incredibly difficult piece on one of the most valuable violins ever made bought Bell a total of $32.17 in donations.

In the concert hall, people are willing to pay $100 to listen to Joshua Bell. They listen very attentively to the phenomenal virtuoso, because they expect nothing but sheer brilliance. But that day at the metro, Bell, whose music was once said to do “nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live”, didn’t draw even a fraction of attention. Because people were too busy to listen.

When we expect the beautiful, the beautiful prevails. When we anticipate the magical, the world is filled with magic. When we assume the extraordinary, it is right here, in front of our eyes. We can choose to be more attentive—we can choose to look at every day and every encounter with fresh eyes. Because, if we are completely oblivious to the fact that we just walked by one of the finest musicians of our time, if we don’t see left or right, if we’re always connected and dozens of stimuli fight for our mind’s attention at any given moment—is there more that we’re missing?

In this modern, technological era—where our eyes are so tired they get blind, our minds are so cluttered they’re saturated, our hearts are so neglected they become numb—we need to make time for beauty and inspiration. We need to prioritize our desire to be moved by people and by our experiences. People who get sick or face the risk of losing a loved one instantly develop this mindset. They lose the sense of the mundane and find inspiration in the littlest things. Their eyes are open, because their circumstances make them realize that there’s nothing that should be taken for granted. It is a choice, a priority, a decision that we all do or don’t make.

We can have a world-class violinist play in the middle of a busy metro station, and we can bypass him without ever knowing that he or his music existed. And by doing so, we confine ourselves and the world we live in to a smaller and smaller box.

Amidst the Camino

We need to be in the mind to notice. And we know we can do that, because our eyes fill with wonder every time we travel to a far-off land or watch the world through the eyes of a child. Every time a child walked by Bell, they tried to stop and watch. But every time, they were pushed by their parents to continue.

We can live life in great wonder through the excited eyes of a traveler or a child, or we can let life pass by with tired eyes that had seen it all. To really get in the habit of appreciating life, we need to make time for life. We need to allow ourselves to be moved by the wonders of this world. And we need to assume it is no less than miraculous and extraordinary. Because magic and beauty abound.

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The Art of Falling

My first year of business school is officially over. Having started my summer internship as well as reclaiming my weekends back to myself, I’m finding myself reflecting on the year and lessons learned on this hot summer day in Los Angeles.

My first year in LA offered many lessons. There was contentment, and there were challenges. There was confidence, but also vulnerability. There were many sleepless nights (and I mean, many), and there were new friendships. There was hope, but also—moments of discouragement.

My first year in LA offered many lessons and a lot of opportunities to grow, stretch, and extend myself in every significant aspect of my life. Yet the more I examine these lessons, the more I realize that there is one lesson encompassing them all. More than anything, this year has taught me that it takes wisdom—and courage—to fall.

The End of My WalkI used to think that strong people never fall, never need or ask for help.  The last several years—and this year in particular—have taught me that strong people do fall. The difference between them and others is that strong people get back up, learn from their mistakes, and move forward with even greater determination and will. As it turns out, it takes a lot of wisdom and courage…

To allow yourself to fall, and to be ok with it
There are probably very few people on this planet who have a stronger aversion to failure than I do. I used to despise making mistakes, I really did. But learning from mistakes is the bread and butter of personal development. You can’t really develop yourself unless you’re willing to take the risk of falling. And you can’t really learn from your mistakes unless you have embraced them first. The only way to fulfill yourself is to make it a habit to step outside your comfort zone and to take risks. And that means that sometimes you succeed, and sometimes you fail. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.”

Mountains on the way to Molinaseca

Allowing yourself to fall also means that you learn to be ok with being rejected. You understand that getting a “no” for an answer has the potential to transform you. Every “no” brings you closer to a “yes”; every mistake—if you learn from it—brings you closer to success. It takes wisdom and courage…

To learn from your mistakes
We’re all very good at telling ourselves stories about why we failed. But learning from your mistakes means that you take a hard and close look at the situation and you figure out how you ended up in it in the first place. If you keep playing the same “tape” in your head, there’s likely to be no learning, and you’ll find yourself making the same mistakes over and over again. To gain perspective, you need to separate yourself from the situation and examine it with fresh eyes. Sometimes, if you’re too involved, you might need another pair of eyes. That’s why knowing how to fall also has to do with your support system, because how much and how quickly you’re able to get back on your feet has to do—in part—with the people you surround yourself with and their ability to pull you up.

More often than not, asking yourself hard questions will lead you to identifying and owning your mistakes; did you contribute to the situation in any way and, if so, how? Taking personal responsibility is not about self-blame; it provides you with the opportunity to dive deeper into the situation, and it is the key to being able to do things differently in the future. But owning your mistakes isn’t about self-crucifixion either. Can you evaluate the level by which you wish and expect yourself to operate, while treating yourself with poise and compassion? It takes wisdom and courage…

To commit to taking action, and to keep pushing forward
Developing awareness of the mistakes I made this year and why—on a deeper level—I made them offered a great gift. But for a real transformation to come full circle, you need to step into action. What are you going to do differently from hereon and how will you create a sustainable mental, emotional, and/or behavior change? While stepping into action, my first year in LA taught me that knowing how to fall required self-discipline, perseverance, and commitment. The wise Japanese proverb says it all. “Nanakorobi yaoki” literally means “fall seven times, stand up eight”; it doesn’t matter how many times or how hard you fall, as long as you rise back up again. Having a big-picture purpose or goal will help you fuel your discipline and commitment.

Too many people don’t follow their dreams because they’re too afraid to fail. But making mistakes is one of the biggest roadblocks to success, personal development, and self-fulfillment. Allowing yourself to fall, embracing the knowledge learned from your mistakes, and being able to recover and grow stronger takes wisdom and courage.

There’s no quick fix. And if you don’t succeed…try again.

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10 Things I Am Thankful For Today

10. Silence
I admit, I have forgotten.  I got so wrapped up in the MBA and in “being busy”, that I forgot how important, nurturing and productive having some quiet time was.  And modern life doesn’t come to rescue in reminding us.  In fact, it is the contrary.  In today’s world, where always doing something is rewarded and multi-tasking is praised, we need to consciously carve time for—literally—silence.  Yes, silence.  I know that to some of us the thought of just, well, doing nothing sounds most counterproductive.  No, not even reading or listening to music.  Just being with ourselves.  Especially at the beginning, we might feel like it’s the biggest waste of our time and that, in fact, there’s nothing quiet about it, since our mind is racing in a million different directions.  Having a mental state of silence does take practice, but the rewards are far-greater than we can imagine.  But, how can there be anything productive about “doing nothing” anyway?

Our brain is not designed to be optimally working with the constant stimulation and bombarding of information and tasks.  Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and MIT have showed that the practice of silence alters the structure of our brain.  It improves attention and processing sensory information, affecting both the creativity and functionality of the brain.  In fact, Einstein used silence as a way to stimulate creativity.

Today, I am thankful for this precious reminder, and I know that it is up to me to make silence an active ingredient of my life.

The End of My Walk

9. Good Friends
Having moved to LA in the summer, I’m reminded on a daily basis what a big difference the meaningful connections in my life make.  New friends, old friends…some I see or speak to on a daily basis; some—I may see every few years; others—are no longer in my life.  Yet each one of them had made or is still making a difference.  Each one of them has taught me valuable lessons and reminded me of the kind of person I want to be, sometimes by simply being who and what they are.

Through friendships, we grow.  Through friendships, we transform.  We make mistakes, and we learn.  We create ourselves as the kind of people we wish to be.  In that sense, friendships provide a never-ending opportunity to learn and better ourselves.  The presence of our good friends makes us want to be better human beings.

But friendships are meant to evolve over the years because—as we grow and develop—the people in our lives (hopefully) evolve and develop as well.

Today, I am thankful for truly good and special friends—past and present—for the role they play in my life.

8. Nature
Spring is here and a change in seasons is always such a powerful reminder of nature’s greatness.  It can be breath-taking views in a far-off land, but we really don’t need to go on a tropical vacation to fully appreciate, enjoy, and bring nature into our life.  It is right here, in front of our eyes.  We can go for a walk, find a nearby park, or listen to the morning birds.  We just need to take the time—to listen, to witness, to smell and touch.

Today, I am thankful for this brilliant masterpiece we are all a part of.

Fields of Gold

7. Music
Whether I play music, dance, or sing—as long as I am actively listening—I become fully present and I feel whole in ways that cannot be described in words.  I don’t know if it’s my grandmother giving me piano lessons as early as I can remember myself, but there’s always something special when I let music vibrate and play through me.

The effect music has on the human body and mind is astonishing.  It enhances memory and intelligence; it improves performance and productivity; it reduces pain and blood pressure; it decreases stress and depression; it improves concentration, attention, and sleep…it can even sync our heartbeat.

I am not a musician by any means, nor do I need to be.  Because to me, music is life.

Today, I am thankful for the music—for being able to immerse myself in it and become one with it.

6. My body
Poor body image and perception is all too common these days, starting at an alarming young age.  We tend to think of our body as not good enough, not strong enough, not pretty or thin enough.  Our body is just never enough…

But the truth is that our body is nothing less than extraordinary, and I can’t help but wonder how different life would be if we all treated our body with the humble appreciation, wonder, and respect that it so rightfully deserves.

All it takes is to crack a physiology book open or browse the web for 15 minutes to even start grasping how intelligent, resilient, and truly miraculous the body is.  We usually give the body attention when something is not working—when something is broken or hurting.  But do we appreciate how much is happening every moment and with what great perfection and ease?  And do we ever realize that by hurting or breaking—by signaling that something is “not working”—the body is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do?

Our body does a lot for us.  But…what have we done for our body?

Today, I am thankful for my body.

5. Inner Strength
I used to think that strong people never fall, never need or ask for help.  In recent years I’ve learned, that strong people aren’t those who never fall (those are just delusional).  But rather, strong people are those who get back up, collect the pieces, and move forward with even greater determination and will.

Today, I am thankful for the falls and for the courage to ask for help.

Camino Path

4. My Family
Learning to appreciate and accept my family has been transformational.  There’s something truly magical about spending time with my niece and nephew, about celebrating a holiday around the family table, about knowing that my family is there for me.

This hasn’t always been the case for me.  I understand what it means to love my family, and why and how it is an active choice and decision I can make every day.

Today, I am thankful for my family.

3. My Sense of Purpose
Growing into, accepting, and fully owning our sense of purpose is one of the greatest gifts we can ever give to ourselves.  It is far more than a job, a title, or a task.  It is something that brings us ultimate joy and fulfillment while serving a greater good.

To me, it is something that makes me feel timeless and ageless.  It is far more than what I do—it is the way I am…and I cannot imagine the world—or my life—without it.

Today, I am thankful for having a sense of purpose.  It is today that I also ask for the courage to fully live and realize my purpose in this life.

2. Noa
We haven’t been officially introduced, but I cannot wait to meet you in person.

Today, I am thankful for the possibility of having you in my life.

1. My Mother
To me, motherhood is still the greatest wonder of nature and this world.  And even though there’s an ocean and many miles between us, there’s something comforting in knowing that, somewhere on this planet, I have a mom who loves and cares for me unconditionally…sometimes to a fault.

Today, I am thankful for my mom.

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Camino Finisterre in Pictures

This gallery contains 25 photos.

It was in Magical Muxia that I ended my walk.  Santiago – Finisterre – Muxia, July 2012.

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Things I’ve Learned from My Dog

  1. A good meal is something to get excited about…enjoy your food and savor every bite
  2. Take walks on a regular basis…it’ll do wonders to your heart and mind
  3. Keep positive…great surprises await you just around the corner
  4. Be kind to yourself…one treat at a time
  5. Be kind and give to others…it’ll fill your life with meaning and your heart with joy
  6. A genuine smile can go a long way and soften the hardest of hearts
  7. Live in the moment (that’s all you’ve got)
  8. Participate in the world…be curious, courageous, playful, and foolish
  9. Show and speak your love on a daily basis…hugs and kisses included :)
  10. Be flexible, but more than anything, be yourself
  11.  Observe nature in great wonder…there’s so much beauty and wisdom out there
  12. You have a body—use it (wisely) and stay active
  13. Life is a journey, not a destination
  14. The most precious things in life are those that can’t be measured
  15. Sometimes, the best way to love someone is to let them go…

Alice, May 1995 – January 2013

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Camino Portugues in Pictures

This gallery contains 36 photos.

Photo Gallery of my Camino Portugues, Porto to Santiago, July 2012…

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A Sign and a Reminder

I arrived in Santiago at 11am on a Saturday morning.  I passed Praza de Galicia, paused upon entering the old city, and overlooked the familiar, narrow streets ahead.

The morning was fresh, and the walk was surprisingly peaceful and quiet.  Yesterday’s heavy rain created a majestic morning mist and the strong presence of water brought forth a sense of new beginning and awakening.

It’s been several weeks of walking.  As I recalled my path and journey, I came across a sign, marking the 10 kilometers left before reaching Santiago.  I realized that if we were ever lost, it was rarely due to lack of signage.  More often, it was because of our inability to see, or our mere choice of ignoring what we saw—opportunities as well as warning signs, internal or external.

By the time I crossed the street into the old city, my emotions steered up and surfaced.  I could hear the sound of my every step against the medieval stone path.  I could feel my every breath as if my lungs were infinite.  Seeing the Cathedral from the distance—perhaps a 5-minute walk ahead—I was filled with mixed feelings.  I wanted to already get there, but I also wished time would come to a halt, allowing me to take it all in for just a little longer.

Breathing in…every image, every sound, every scent—I arrived.

There I was, standing in Praza do Obradoiro and staring at the cathedral in great wonder, as if seeing it for the first time.

I must have stood there for a while.  By the time I became aware of everything around me again, there was rain pouring all over me and the pilgrims’ mass was just about to start.  I walked up the stairs slowly, and entered the cathedral.

Wood carved scallop and a backpack, Santiago Cathedral upon arrival

The City of Santiago welcomed me with open arms.  Walking through the medieval streets in the afternoon, I was surprised just by how much at home I felt.  Whether you arrive from afar or near, Santiago is a pilgrim’s haven.  Though you might have never been here before, you are surrounded by what feels like an extended family and more often than not, you can count on running into the many friends you made along the way—people you haven’t seen in weeks, perhaps even since your first day of walking; people you might have thought you’d never see again.

So it was no surprise that Anke and I crossed paths again that Saturday on Anke’s last evening in Santiago.  I appreciated the opportunity to share our journey as it was reaching its end, and was deeply touched by her thank-you gift, a scallop-shaped silver pendant.

Back at the hostel that night, I decided to take two days of rest before setting off for three more days of walking to the ocean.  Feeling the scallop pendant against my skin, I knew that it would serve a sign and a reminder—of our ability to shatter even the strongest of walls, of the less traveled yet most rewarding journeys from within, and of the many gifts that every turn along our path has to offer.

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First Post from LA

Three months have passed since I finished my Camino Portugues and year of travels.  I’ve been meaning to write…I have so much to tell.  I moved to Los Angeles at the end of August, and found the move busier than expected.  I’m still getting used to everything, especially the fast pace everything seems to take on.  Every morning, as I walk to school, I re-live the Camino and get into a mindful and grateful mindset.  In an instance, I find myself so in-tuned with nature and its magic, that it’s hard to believe I’m in central LA rather than the magnificent open fields in Spain.  It’s a nice way to start my day.

Some of you have been writing, wondering where I’ve been…so this is a quick note to say, I’m still here (well, in LA) and my Camino spirit is still alive and kicking.  Last week, I hang a Camino tile on one of the walls in my new home.  The yellow-shell tiles are used as waymarks, guiding pilgrims along the way.  Every time I look at the tile, no matter how busy things get, I remember…

I very much look forward to a quiet moment where I’ll share my experience of arriving in Santiago.  Mid-terms are on the (very fast-approaching!) horizon, so I suspect publishing my Santiago post, as well as Camino Portugues picture gallery, the story of my walk to the ocean through Finisterre and majestic Muxia, and finally, the amazing celebration of the Feast of St. James will all have a to wait.  But stay tuned…they are coming.

(In the meantime, feel free to drop me a line.  Emails and stories are great reasons to take a study break…) :)

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When the Rain Came

It was in the morning, as I left Caldas de Reis, that the rain came.  Heavy, persistent, tireless rain that made me question each and every step I made.  It was in the morning that the rain came…and it didn’t stop for 8 hours.

I had a full day planned ahead.  My intention was to pass the city of Padrón and make it to Teo—a total of 29 kilometers—which would have left me with a short 15-kilometer stretch to Santiago on the following day.

I was getting closer to San Miguel de Valga when three pilgrims on the path ahead caught my attention.  They were the first pilgrims I’d seen in over 3 hours—most pilgrims abandoned the path and found a shelter from the rain—but there was something else.  Two of them, men, were walking on both sides of a woman, supporting and holding her by the arms in each and every step.

I couldn’t tell how young or old the woman was, but there was a significant disability in her legs, and her walking was greatly compromised.  The three of them walked in silence, making very little progress with each step.  I decided to slow down, and walked a short distance behind them.

There I was, healthy, taking my expected arrival in Santiago for granted.  And though I’d been mindful of my steps ever since I started walking, it was when my walking almost came to a complete halt that I really felt my legs’ every muscle, every bone, every step.

It was when the rain came that I realized, not even a single step should be taken for granted.

As I passed them, I turned my head back and was surprised to see how young the woman was, perhaps in her late 20’s.  There was something very powerful about the way she walked—something immensely determined, something far greater and more resilient than her petite body.  And despite the demanding effort it took her to walk, her face was in complete acceptance, even peace.  She looked as though there was nothing on her mind other than making one more step.  And another.

By the time I looked ahead again, my eyes and face were flooded—this time, with tears.  The rain was getting stronger, and I was soaked to the bone, but I was filled with gratitude and appreciation.  I kept on walking, letting the tears come down, until there were no tears left.  And there were no more questions in my footsteps.

I decided to pass the city of Padrón and continue walking, despite the heavy rain.  Arriving at the pilgrims’ hostel in Teo, I was grateful for a safe arrival and a roof over my head.  I was exhausted, and suspected I developed a mild fever.  I took a hot shower, hang my clothes to dry, and got into my sleeping bag to keep my body warm.  I recalled the three pilgrims and hoped that they, too, arrived at their destination safely.

When I left Lisbon one sunny morning in June, little did I know about the path that lied ahead.  With some twists and turns, unexpected change in plans, powerful encounters, and a well of insights, my Camino has been everything I could have asked for, and more.  Whichever path we choose to walk, our legs lead the way and carry us on.  Every step we make is a gift, every turn we take is a world of possibilities—no matter how fast we walk, no matter how far we’ve come.

What the last stretch to Santiago will bring, I do not know.  But I will cherish and appreciate each and every step of the way.

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Changing My History

I grew up in a small Jewish family.  My grandmother left her hometown of Kolo, Poland several years before World War II.  She tried to convince the rest of her family to join her, but they chose to stay in Poland and, with the exception of one uncle, they were all exterminated in the holocaust.

I don’t remember my grandmother ever talking about the war or the loss of her loved ones, nor do I remember explicitly being taught to hate.  But there was always something there—something colder than ice, something stronger than words.  If I watched a sporting event with my dad, he would always root for whoever played Germany; if we considered buying something for our home, there was always the reason why we shouldn’t purchase a German brand; if we met someone of a German descent, there would always be a comment, a stereotype, a biased generalization.  My acquaintance with the German language and culture summed up to World War II movies, where anything German was always associated with aggression, oppression, fear, and death.  I developed a strong aversion to anything German, but I never questioned or tried to change it—I had no reason to, and it was just the way things were.

On the Camino, I always greet German pilgrims as I would greet any other pilgrim.  But every time, I realize, something deep inside of me constricts and violently shuts down, and I feel a strange, distant pain in my heart.  I find myself automatically calculating how old a German Pilgrim is, and I always wonder which of their family members were alive during the war and whether they took an active role in those dark days and crimes.  As in a typical case of conditioned reflex, I do this automatically and I know it’s not rational.  But somehow, I feel that it’s my way—perhaps even duty—to remember.

Staying in a pilgrims hostel with a group of playful German teenagers one evening made me realize just how deep, subconscious, and complex my relationship with Germany was.  Hearing their loud voices, I had such a strong visceral reaction, that I had to leave the hostel for several hours, until my body calmed down.

That’s why I didn’t expect my encounter with Anke to be any different.  I greeted her with a Buen Camino and, upon learning she was German, I felt that thick wall forming within and around my body.  Though we were only 2-3 feet apart, it was as if there was an infinite distance between us.  But by the time our eyes met, everything was different.  It was her eyes—innocent and pure—that caught me by surprise and, gradually, softened my heart.  Her soft yet direct gaze made me feel uncomfortable, and it was in that discomfort, in the space of the goodness of her eyes, that I’ve come to recognize and accept the seeds of hatred I’ve been carrying for so long.  I wasn’t proud of it, but there it was, raw and uncovered—deep, resentful, prejudiced hatred.

It was hard to swallow.  After all, who would like to think of themselves as hateful and prejudiced?

But I was.

Anke was kind, funny and gentle.  She was anything but conventional and far from the German stereotype I knew as a child.  But more than anything, Anke was good—there wasn’t a drop of bad intention in her entire body.

Over the next four days, we walked several stretches together and met at various stops and villages.  We had dinner every night and enjoyed the flow of conversation as if we were long-time friends.  We talked about our families, our upbringing, our lives and dreams.  We opened up to each other in surprising and unexpected ways, and I was amazed by our synchronicity—as if everything was orchestrated miraculously well, without the need to say anything, and despite the short while we’ve known each other.  Her German was soft, and it was the first time in my life that I heard the language without having a negative reaction to it.  The conditioning started breaking, and I was changed.

By the time we arrived in Pontevedra, we decided it was time to part ways.  She was in a hurry to get to Santiago as she had a flight to catch in just a few days, and I enjoyed Pontevedra so much that I wanted to take a day of rest and explore the town.  We visited Santuario da Peregrina, a magical chapel with a floor plan shaped as a scallop shell, and it was outside the chapel, in the Praza da Peregrina, that we said goodbye.

I sat by the Lérez River, watching the water and taking it all in.  I checked into a charming little pension, took a long shower, and planned my day.  As I was getting ready to leave the pension and walk around town, a family of three pilgrims arrived.  I greeted them and when I heard their German accent, I couldn’t help but smile.  There were no walls, no hatred, no conditioning or pain.  Instead, there was a feeling of happiness and warmth in my heart—a feeling that quickly spread throughout my body.

I don’t know if we can ever fully clear ourselves from all biases and prejudice.  I imagine there are deep, subconscious memories and experiences—personal, familial, and national—waiting to be revealed.  But it is seeing the impurity of our heart with clear eyes that sets us free.  It is our letting go of even one ounce of hatred that makes a difference.  Because in the end, it is our ability to see each other for who and what we really are that brings us closer together.

I cannot return those whose lives have been lost.  I cannot change my family history.  But by continuously clearing my heart from prejudice—with the assistance of one kind German pilgrim—I can change…one step at a time.

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