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relationships — The Meaningful Traveler


Travel, loss and memory

by Steve Brock on August 3, 2016

Panting GingerWhat I’m about to write is unfinished business. I likely should not even share these thoughts until they are better formed and understood. But because I’m wandering in the realm of emotions here, I fear that by the time I gain a more complete intellectual understanding of it all, I will have lost the deeper power and meaning of the experience.


Four days ago, we had to put our beloved Labrador Retriever, Ginger, to sleep. I always thought that expression – putting an animal to sleep – was a euphemism: no one wants to own up to what you’re really doing. But after stroking Ginger’s head as the vet gave her the injection and she gently closed her eyes for the last time, I realize how appropriate the phrase is.

All during the almost 13 years that we’ve had Ginger, whenever a family member would project human emotions or perceived understanding on her, I would say, “C’mon. She’s just a dog.” But as any pet owner of good will and generous spirit learns, that’s not really true. Ginger wasn’t just a dog. She was our dog. And now part of us is gone.



Today I ran into a friend I see every few months. My wife and I have been praying for her husband who has been battling cancer for the last few years. I found out today that he recently passed away.

I think the tears that came unbidden mattered more than any words I could say to her. Tears that flowed easier for me due to my own sadness. If grief were a game of comparisons, I would lose. But it’s not. Grief is instead something we simply share. Something we stumble our way through…together.

My friend said how hard it is now to be only a person, not a couple. To find a task at home that required her husband’s strength. To see an object of his and remember. And then she wondered if that will last: Will she reach a point where she ceases to remember? She worried that she might forget him. I have wondered the same thing about Ginger. But then I assured her she will not. And here’s how I know.


GingerYesterday I walked through the park where we used to let Ginger run free to retrieve a thrown ball or stick. If I had to convey in one single image of what pure joy looks like, it would be Ginger running toward me, stick in mouth, full throttle in undiminished, exquisite happiness.

People refer to “a stab of pain” when a memory hits hard. But it’s more, to me, like a constriction. In your throat, your lungs, your gut. That’s how it was there in the park. The memory came and then a wave of sadness washed over me even as I was beginning to reassemble the pieces of that memory. And slowly, amidst the sadness, the happy time came into focus only to have that overshadowed by the realization I will never see Ginger run with such joyful abandonment again. Pain. Tenderness. Loss. Delight. Repeat.

As I thought about it, the moment reminded me in a very small way of that bittersweet feeling you have when traveling. Where you encounter people and places that move you in ways you didn’t know you could be moved. And then, even as you are wanting to stay forever in that moment, you’re not. You are the one moving. Away. Beyond. Back to a life so unlike what you have just experienced.

I realize that longing from a trip and the death of a loved one aren’t even close in impact and importance. But they do share this: They are feelings, conflicted ones. And both are forms of loss that have taught me something important: how to nurture a memory.

I know how to stay in that moment of deep pain or mere discomfort long enough for it to settle into something more. Something redemptive. Something that, while hard, will eventually reinforce and clarify what is good. And I believe my friend understands this as well.

But if she does not, I will share that with her. For it is in sharing and reminding, of laughing together at the good memories and being there for each other during the hard ones, that we hold onto what we have lost. We will, on our own, eventually lose some of the details and fine points in what we remember. But through each other and the artifacts of life – objects, familiar places, photographs and stories – we will be reminded. Of a sweet smile, a tender touch or in my case, the sheer joy of a dog running with a stick.

We won’t forget.

Ginger and Connor

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Doing it right – Part 2

by Steve Brock on July 9, 2014

Surfing and the HandAs I noted last time, I tend to be a “jump in and learn on my own” kind of person. But since Shaun Wolden, co-founder of BigFoot Surf School down in Westport, WA had been so helpful, encouraging and supportive when my son Connor took lessons from him back in March, I overcame my historic leaning toward learning on my own and let Shaun guide me. I’m so glad I did.

Shaun got me all set up with wetsuit, hood and booties (these are definitely not Hawaii-temperature waters), marched me down to the beach…and then back up to the top of the overlooking bluff. You always start, he said, by spending time understanding the water. Seeing where the waves are breaking. Identifying likely rip tides. Examining who else is out there and what they are doing.

After that, we spent time on the beach learning surf safety. It wasn’t quite like watching “Red Asphalt” in driver’s ed class. But I will say that I have a much healthier respect for how the fins of a surfboard and the brute ramming force of the board itself can deconstruct or at least maim your body parts if you’re not paying attention.

I then learned how to carry the board. How to appreciate the craftsmanship of the board. How to enter the water with the board. Dive under oncoming waves with the board as you make your way out. How to get on the board. Position yourself on the board. Even…eventually…stand on the board.

Oh, yeah, and surf.

Could I have learned to do what I did on my own? Sure. But in a lot more time and likely not as well. Plus, I would have missed out on the insights that took it from a day of fun to a truly meaningful experience.

Some of Shaun’s advice:

  • When you emerge from ducking under a wave, your immediate reaction will be to wipe your eyes. Don’t. Your head is built to deflect water. Let it do its work. If you stop to wipe your eyes right then, you’ll miss the next wave or next surfer flying right at you. Look first. Then wipe. Delayed gratification can save your life.
  • Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Make each movement count. Take it slow in getting everything aligned and do so smoothly. When you do it smoothly, like standing on the board, fast follows. All will be well.
  • Look all around you. As a beginner, your natural tendency will be to focus on the board and what’s right in front of you. Don’t. Maintain a 360 degree awareness of everything: the beach before you, the surfers to your left and right, the incoming waves behind you. Don’t let your natural focus take away from a broader awareness. Great advice for surfing…and for travel.
  • Follow the hand. OK, this one starts getting a bit surf-Zen-like. As you stand on the board, hold your left hand at eye level, palm toward the beach in the direction you want to go. Then follow the hand. (Note my left hand in the photo above at the end of the wave).

Sounds a bit out there, right? But eventually I tried it. All the wobbly balance issues I’d had faded away. Fast and smooth suddenly were mine.

I would never have figured out the hand trick on my own. So back on the beach later, I asked what the psychological or physiological rationale was for it.

“It just works,” he said in a good-natured avoidance of my question. But he was right. Not everything requires a logical rationale. And not everything can be learned on your own. More often than we may realize, we need others to show us the way in order to get the most out of a new experience.

Still, later on, I pressed again for the reason the hand trick works and got this similar answer.

“I can’t explain it to you in any way that your analytical mind would understand. It’s like magic. Sometimes you just have to believe.”

And now I do.

You can read Part 1 here if you haven’t already.

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Travel and trust – Part 1

by Steve Brock on May 9, 2014

Delft Building and Bicycles

On the afternoon and evening we were killing time waiting in Delft in the Netherlands, we did something every family should do when traveling together for an extended period.

We split up.

No matter how well you get along, it’s good to go your own way occasionally and get a small break from each other. My wife and son went shopping for some of Delft’s famed blue and white porcelain. I took off to explore.

Traveling solo opens a world that isn’t available to you even when you’re with just one other person. You’re more approachable, even vulnerable. That can be very positive since you have encounters you’d miss otherwise. But it can also put you in situations where you wish you had some back-up…

As I wandered around the main square taking pictures of the interesting buildings such as the one above or the numerous canals such as the one below, I came across a beautiful sound.

Delft CanalAs I turned the corner, I beheld a group of street musicians, a half dozen playing while a few others and what appeared to be their wives or girlfriends sat in their midst enjoying the music as well.

I’d never heard music like this – exactly in this style – before. It sounded like a cross between the band in the bar scene of the original Star Wars movie and Jewish Klezmer music. Led by a lively, uplifting clarinet, the music was both complex with the various instruments weaving their sounds together, but almost childlike in its simple, catchy melodies.

I paused to listen and watch, then lingered in the general vicinity ostensibly taking photos, but mostly enjoying the music. I passed through an entryway into a nearby garden area where I discovered a lovely park and sculpture made from the shards of Delft pottery such as the bench below. All the while, I could still hear the music.

Delft China BenchI decided to reward these musicians, so I dug out all the change I had, a substantial amount in heft but totaling barely a euro (about $1.30). Still, it was something.

I held the coins in my hand as I returned to where the musicians were, but by now, they were wrapping up and bundling away their instruments. As I approached, the leader of the group came over and, shrewdly surmising my intent, held out his hand. “You like our music?” he said in halting English. “Very much,” I replied pouring what now seemed like a paltry amount of change into his hand. He didn’t seem to care about the monetary value so much as my appreciation.

Soon, the entire band was around me, all smiles as I told them how I’d never heard music like that and how good they were.

They told me they were from Serbia and, of course, they wondered about my country. So we talked and they held up their various instruments; clarinet, violin, small guitar, tambourine/drum, accordion and others. Soon, one of the members was gesturing with his cell phone for me to stand with their leader (who did all the talking) for a photo. The leader wrapped his arm around me and there we stood for the photo like two old friends. And for that moment, that’s what it felt like we were.

By now, they were all packed up and so we said our goodbyes. I wandered off toward a canal and they dispersed. As I walked, I mused over these small moments and brief encounters you have on trips, ones that usually only happen when you’re on your own.

What a great experience I thought. Then I reached into my pocket for my smart phone to check the time.

It wasn’t there…

To be continued…

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You can go back, but…Part 2

by Steve Brock March 18, 2014

It’s hard to see a place with fresh eyes when that place is intimately associated with people we once knew there. How do we let go of the past? Should we always?

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It’s a smaller world – Part 1

by Alan Noble October 24, 2013

Editor’s Note: I’ve asked my friend Alan Noble to share some of his experience of living in Nairobi, Kenya. Alan and I worked together years ago at World Vision, the international Christian relief and development organization where Alan still is employed. This is the first of three parts. How does one write about an event […]

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The full story – Part 3

by Steve Brock September 25, 2013

As I discovered in Frankfurt with some dear friends, it may take years, but sometimes travel affords us the opportunity to say what needs to be said and to complete what needs closure.

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Driving in Paris

by Steve Brock July 30, 2013

Driving in Paris is a lot like life. There are challenges and rewards. You don’t always end up where you planned. Most of all, it’s much better when you don’t try it alone.

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