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Slow Starts and Sweet Surprises

Slow Starts and Sweet Surprises

To be honest, it always takes me some extra time to warm up to the new year. What about you?

Luckily, I’ve learned that, if you bundle up well, go for a wander, and get curious, you may stumble on a nice surprise.

I sure did, thanks to this sweet Love Letter box I found in the little town of Norfolk, aka the “icebox of Connecticut.”

A note on the box invited people to “write a love letter to someone unknown and to take a note for yourself.”

Imagine my delight when I pulled out this message! –>>> “You are singular and spectacular!”

I mean, c’mon! How great is that?!

Did I keep the note?

Well, I wanted to. But in the end I decided to leave it for the next lucky person.

Because here’s the thing: Every one of us is singular and spectacular. 

To be clear: “Every one” includes you.

Even if you haven’t chosen your word of the year, yet. Or ever.

Even if you’ve already bailed on your New Year’s resolutions.  

And even if you still aren’t sure what to make of the year ahead and your goals for the year have yet to come into focus.

Trust that they will in time.

Meanwhile, repeat after me: “I am singular and spectacular!”


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to…

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to…

Several years ago I hit a one of those big life milestones…you know, the kind where you add a zero to your chronological age. Yes, I’m a bit vain so you’re not getting any more details than that. 😉

Anyway, to mark the passage into a new phase of my life, I resolved to walk part of the Camino de Santiago, the centuries-old network of pilgrimage routes that extends across Europe and ends in the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.

Kitted out with backpack, walking stick, and a brand new pair of hiking boots, I chose the most well-known route, the Camino Frances, which begins in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, and crosses through several Spanish provinces. 

One evening about two weeks into my walk, I was chatting by phone with a friend in the U.S. when she asked if I’d done any early morning walks.

“No, why?” I asked.

“Oh, I just imagine it must be so spiritual, to be walking out under the stars, being out in nature in the pre-dawn,” she said.

Truth be told, it had never even occurred to me to walk in the dark. Rising early in the wee hours of the morning is customary on the Camino. But that’s more out of necessity and expediency. As anyone who’s walked the Camino in the high season knows, the early bird has a much better chance of snagging a cot in the albuergues, the dormitory-style accommodations that dot the Camino. Sleep in and you may end your day with sore feet, heat exhaustion, and no place to sleep. 

So, yes, waking up early was already part of my Camino routine. And, yet, venturing forth before daybreak intrigued me. What would that be like?, I wondered. Might I discover something else on the Camino that was invisible in the daylight?

So that night I resolved to rise before dawn so I could experience the Camino while the rest of the pilgrims slept on. 

To help orient pilgrims, and direct them toward Santiago de Compostela, there are waymarkers along Camino. The scallop shell is the most iconic symbol and waymarker. Typically painted in yellow and blue, the scallop shell appears on crumbling walls, the sides of buildings, and often literally under your feet on the path. In some provinces, the scallop shell is accompanied by a yellow arrow pointing the way east to Galicia.

Having spent several weeks on the Camino, I was pretty adept at spotting the waymarkers. After ten minutes I had left the city and my cozy cot behind. The world was eerily silent; even the birds had not yet awoken. I was feeling proud of myself (okay, maybe a bit unsettled by the total silence) and rehearsing what I’d tell my friend about my bravery. I strained my ears for the sound of nocturnal creatures and heard nothing. I gazed up at the sky, ready to marvel at the constellations, but the clouds obscured all.

Feeling a bit deflated, I entered a tiny village and made my way to small plaza with several paths and streets radiating in several directions. Peering around in the dim, actually, nearing non-existent light I couldn’t find a scallop shell or an arrow. I stumbled around a bit, shining my headlamp around corners, down alleys, and scanning the roundabout. And still, no waymarker.

After stumbling around in the dark for a bit, the voices in my head started panicking. “What kind of a dumb idea was this? How stupid to be out walking alone?! I mean, what did I really expect to find out here, anway?”

Then, another voice, one that many pilgrims hear, whispered in my subconscious, “Remember. The way is always there. Just pay attention.”

That was when I turned and saw it – smack dab in the center of the roundabout, a mere three feet away, stood an enormous statue of Saint James. Staff in one hand and a scallop shell danging from his waist, the statue’s free hand was raised and pointing.

I was so surprised, I burst out laughing.

What a wonderful timely lesson. No, I didn’t experience the awakening I’d gone looking for that morning. I had been too busy orchestrating my own adventure and trying to will some grand discovery that would serve as pilgrim bragging rights.

I nearly missed the very magic of the moment.

Fortunately, and of course, the waymarker and the message been there all along.

They always are, aren’t they?

Want support with your own personal wayfinding? Click here to learn about my “North Star” and “Pilgrimage” coaching packages.

Justine Ickes coach trainer instructional designer

Breaking and entering

This essay by Justine Ickes was first published in July 2014 by Aperiodical LLC. The Magazine’s online ISSN: 2334-4970.

Every Sunday during the early 1960s my family would tour Long Island’s construction sites. Dad — an English teacher and armchair architect — led his bride and me around developments with names like “Pine Barrens” and “Birchwood at Blue Ridge.” Looking, after all, was free.

Often the half-built houses were unlocked, so we’d walk right in and amble around. Brushing away the sawdust with his flip-flops, Dad would decipher the markings on the subfloors and the joists, and indulge his design dreams. Our piano could go here, his reading chair there, that nook should be mom’s sewing room.

We prowled the subdivisions, oblivious to laws and safety codes, like hermit crabs in search of the perfect shell. It took decades, in fact, and the birth of my own two sons, for me to wonder, “What kind of person not only teaches their toddler to trespass, but doesn’t even acknowledge the transgression?”

Occasionally, our illegal incursions would hit a snag. Once my dad boosted me through a window — smack into a bathroom sink. Unperturbed, he guided me from outside until I sprang open the front door. “I’m right here,” he coaxed. “Just follow my voice.”

Outside the realms of real estate, I didn’t always play the willing accomplice to my father’s capers, though. I remember one ill-fated Easter hunt. “Sweetheart, go find some eggs!” he urged while I scowled in silence, jabbing a clod of turf with my patent leather shoes.

“The egg affair,” as Dad dubbed it, came to encapsulate our dutiful daughter–fearless father dynamic. For while I never imagined our escapades as anything but ordinary, I often found my father’s boundary-pushing terrifying, and his insistence on bravery maddening. So at age seven I drew the line: I would enter other people’s future homes with others, but I balked at sallying forth alone.

The world is my oyster

By college, however, I had embraced solo forays. A semester in London stretched into two decades of wandering of my own. English teaching in Madrid. A stint training Peace Corps volunteers in Eritrea. A summer trekking around Anatolia with my Turkish fiancé.

Back home on Long Island, my dad continued to indulge his architectural fantasies. At Christmas I’d flit home and find him poring over This Old House magazine or stacks of house-plan books. Dad had always been an avid reader, thanks to a childhood bout of rheumatic fever that kept him bedridden for a year. “Listen to this,” he’d say, scanning the real estate listings in the Sunday New York Times. “‘Mint pre-war apartment with formal dining room and wood-burning fireplace.’ Wouldn’t it be lovely to live there?”

Eventually, health issues left our breaking-and-entering empire in ruins. When my father developed diabetes, the ensuing circulation problems made walking difficult and painful. So we did drive-by reconnaissance; we would motor the long route home from the library, the grocery store, or — with increasing frequency — the doctor’s office. Along the way we’d marvel at a renovated Cape, groan over the new vinyl siding on a Dutch Colonial, or stare in dismay at the latest McMansion.

When my fella (now husband) and I bought our first home — a fixer-upper brick townhouse — I emailed Dad hand-drawn floor plans, careful to add the architectural hieroglyphics he’d taught me years before: dashes for a window, the staircase a block of lines, a square with four circles for the stove.

Later, we decamped to an old mill town in Connecticut. Through the casement windows, Dad would watch his grandsons clambering over the fieldstone walls that lined our property. “I could sit here forever,” he sighed. “It’s such a lovely view.”

Once, while tooling around the neighborhood, we spied a weather-worn folly, its gray-green cupola overgrown with wild roses. Ever the dreamer — and architectural pirate — Dad suggested we cart the gazebo off. “Just picture it near the lilac,” he said. “You could pretend to be Charlotte Brontë.”

In 2010, William Henry Ickes died, not long after I had moved to New England. Flipping through his old sketchbook, I realized that he had spent a lifetime crafting palaces in his mind, but he’d hardly built any in reality. Apart from plywood for homemade valances and miles of crown molding, he had lavished his paycheck and affections on his five kids. But had he, I wondered, ever made peace with the layout of his life?

A month after his death, I stumbled across a child’s chalk drawing on the sidewalk. Next to a lopsided house I saw the words “bathroom” and an arrow pointing to a small rectangle labeled “door.” The blurred, foot-worn sketch could have been teleported straight from my early childhood, when I drew with architectural authority if not precision.

That night in bed I thought about our long-ago residential ramblings and their imprint on my life. From the sidelines, Dad had showed me his plumb-lines for living. Boundaries often fence us in. And fear can demolish dreams. But love will always shore you up. 

And I remembered, too, one of our last conversations. A few days before my father’s bypass surgery, I was taking makeshift measurements of our kitchen, pacing the floor heel-to-toe as we had always done. While Dad plotted the dimensions on his trusty graph paper, I asked if he was afraid of dying. “Actually,” he replied, “I’m looking forward to the rest of the adventure.”

What’s been your most eye-opening travel experience? I’d love to hear.