max hilbert



max hilbert, finesterre, 2015: photo courtesy of felix


dear max,

you don’t know me, but i know you.

it wasn’t so long ago that my friend felix and i were walking in the north of spain, meandering along cliff faces with grey, tormented waves bashing away on the rocks below. we walked through towns and wound our way across the coastline of euskadi always accompanied by that cold, dark body of water to the right. i remember feeling her savage energy on those cloudy, wet days and thinking that nothing could tempt me to go in there!  this thought, this respect for the sea, was reinforced by the memorial plaques that i occasionally found in my wanderings, markers dedicated to people that had been snatched away. taken from mothers, fathers, lovers, sisters and brothers. you know, in the north of spain this happens more than you might think ~people being taken by the sea.

in our conversations, felix and i often spoke of solitude and ‘walking alone’, because at that point, solitude was the most important thing to both of us. it is true though, that as we progressed along our journeys, in different ways, we came to understand how critical it is to be and connect with others. this was definitely my big learning, the reason why i now know i had to walk all that way. the last time felix and i saw each other, there were no plans to see each other again, only an unspoken imagining that we would see each other again, sometime, somewhere………an imagining that was built on the connection that had emerged between us, through our footsteps on the same path.

i guess that that was what felix was thinking when he met you and he took this photo.

max, can i share something with you that i was reading the other day? it is something that aldous huxley wrote:

“we live together, we act on, and react to, one another, but always and in all circumstances we are by ouselves. the martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. by its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. sensations, feelings, insights, fancies-all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. we can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. from family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.”

i used to agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, using it to rationalise a certain solitude and disconnection that i enjoyed like a guilty pleasure. of course, huxley is right in saying that we can never know the exact experience of another, that solitude is what connects us all. but what about the bridges that we build between our island universes? the ones that sometimes lead us right up close to the edge of the other, allowing us to look in, revealing reflections of our own experience of life. i am comforted by that idea. for a moment, i can feel that i am not alone.

even though i never met you, i feel like i know you somehow. your story, your face, your experience, resonates with something inside of me. we are not so disconnected, you and i.

i wonder what went through your mind in the sea that day. what thoughts bubbled up to the surface of your mind as you entered the water, sunburned, full of life, leaving your clothes in a pile on the beach and swimming out…….through this image, i connect with you via the thousands of things that i do each day, simply (and irrationally) assuming that my life will go on and on forever. your experience reminds me of that which is relevant to us all, that sometime, the thing that i do will have to be my last, and i will be honest with you max, it scares me that the last great journey will have to be made alone. imagining you in the water makes me wonder if, even as the shock of what is happening settles in, i will have the courage to face what all of us must face alone. to not struggle. to perhaps even smile as the cold creeps in.

walking into pedrouzo this year, i saw a memorial to all the pilgrims who had died either before finishing their camino, or shortly afterwards. photos, stones, letters, and remnants of human lives, all in a pile. i stood near this sobering memory heap, acutely feeling the blood pulsing in my veins. at that time, you were already gone…….the next time i walk into pedrouzo, i will leave something there for you max, i promise.

you don’t know me, but i know you.

i know that you walked part of the same camino that i did, that your footsteps went before mine. that, like all of us, you went walking to search for something, perhaps without knowing what you were searching for, perhaps not even knowing that you were searching…..but i am sure, because i know the pilgrim’s journey, that you must have found something. you must have seen something. felt something.

i look at this picture of you. smiling, the sun in your eyes.

you don’t know me, but i know you.

when i was walking, i thought a lot about how amazing (my) life is. i wondered what it will be like to die, for it all to end. there were moments where i thought i wouldn’t mind dying at all, so deep was the ecstasy of connection that i was experiencing. i felt i was a part of a great spirit that moves all life, infinite and completely beyond the capacity of my mind to comprehend. did you feel that connection when you walked? was it there at the final moment?

you don’t know me, but i know you.

i know you through the tears your mother cried in felix’s arms at your funeral the other day. tears for time cut short, tears for the past…..

i know you because your death meant something to me, a stranger on the other side of the world. you have reminded me to try and make everything i do and say a prayer to life, and to be thankful for every day that i have, every breath that i am able to take.

thank you.


2 thoughts

  1. I’m not sure if i ever told you Cate but i’m afraid of hights. So flying is really not a pleasant experiense for me. After I finished my camino and I flew to Barcelona and from there back home I was not afraid at all. As I was on the plane I remember I was thinking “if it is my time to leave – I’m not sorry.” It was weird feeling and it was kind of like my life was on the pause or something.. And these words: “i wondered what it will be like to die, for it all to end. there were moments where i thought i wouldn’t mind dying at all, so deep was the ecstasy of connection that i was experiencing.”
    Thank you Cate<3


    • no, i didn’t know that- i think we talked about every other fear we had except that one! (i also struggle with heights..)………..i think we all struggle with our mortality in one way or another- it is beautiful to me that you had that thought on the plane- it tells me that the camino did its’ job!!! lots of love mona, looking forward to seeing you this summer kissesxxx


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