Day 39 – Sleepless in Santiago

If the Camino is replete with unexpected angels who help you, guide you, inspire you, then Meg was an archangel.

This is a long post. I hope you’ll hang in there with me.

On the day after I arrived in Santiago, everyone was leaving to see Finisterra by bus except me. After a leisurely breakfast of coffee and toast with the guys in the albergue‘s modern kitchen, they vanished for the bus station to return later. After 38 days of walking, I had earned a day of rest, but had no plans.

Basking in the glow of my accomplishment, I sat in the main gathering area of the albergue at the public computer, composing emails home to friends and family – when I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder.

I turned my head and looked up into smiling eyes.

Meg!

I was thrilled to see her. And shocked.

We had met weeks before. Though the first time we barely spoke, I felt an immediate and inexplicable connection with her that left me wondering, Who is that? And how do I get to know her? Timing and circumstances prevented any real conversation and the moment slipped away.

That sort of thing happens on the Camino.

Then again, unexpected reconnections happen too. A week later, we met by chance and ended up walking together for an entire glorious afternoon under a bright sky, animatedly talking the whole way. She was the first native English speaker I’d met in weeks and our conversation veered from hilarious to insightful to deep revelations about our work, life purpose, and past struggles. She was an incredibly good listener. Without reservation, I shared long-withheld secrets and was met with warm acceptance.

It was a revelation to be known so quickly by another, and with such ease. It felt like we’d picked up in the middle of a deep and sacred friendship.

And then she was gone.

I fully supported her intention to walk the Camino alone and felt thankful for the exception she’d made for our delightful afternoon together. Knowing her was a gift. I’d never met a woman so willing to claim what she wanted. I felt inspired by her clarity and confidence, and admired her deeply.

After weeks went by without seeing her, I assumed we’d never meet up again. Because that sort of thing can happen on the Camino too.

But now, weeks later, she was standing before me at the same albergue out of dozens in this big city and, as with many encounters with Camino angels, it was a delightful coincidence.

Lounging on the albergue‘s cozy couches, I told her about walking with the guys the last few days and my plans to leave the next morning for Finisterre. She shared with me an intense story about how she walked alone one night and what a revealing this experience was for her. She had been doing the entire Camino solo. But that dark night, at 1am, she realized that she needed people.

Because of my own independent streak and resistance to receiving support, I completely understood the power this experience held for her. I felt moved to hear her tell it. Then she surprised me.

“I want to walk to Finisterre with you,” she said simply. “I was thinking I would go to Muxía first, but I’ll change my plans. I want to walk with you.”

“I would love that,” I told her, my heart beating wildly. And I meant it.

But inside of me arose two simultaneous, conflicting thoughts: “YES!!! Woohoo!” and “Oh, shit.”

Wanting to be known is my heart’s greatest wish. Meg already knew so much about me and I felt such a deep connection with her that I sensed, as the kids say, “shit was gonna get real.” It can feel scary to get what you want.

But hadn’t I prayed to be changed by this experience? Here was The Universe answering by sending me a super-angel, a messenger, a mirror. Someone who could help me change my life just by being present. I felt both elated and nervous anticipating the soul-bearing experience of the next few days. Of course we would walk together to Finisterre. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Our journey started immediately as we left the albergue to explore the city. I played tour guide, pointing out to Meg little details inside the cathedral that I’d noticed the day before. We took a seat in the transept – 45 minutes early – and waited for the Pilgrim Mass to begin. The service itself was totally different from the previous day – warmer, more inclusive, and multilingual. Together we sang along with the lovely nun cantor and said the Mass parts in English. Back at home, I had always gone to Mass alone and I felt a tender sweetness in sharing this with Meg.

I was so moved by the beautiful homily – about setting aside literal and spiritual weight – that I didn’t notice an older man standing uncomfortably in the aisle beside us. Meg did. She stood up and offered her seat to him. How thoughtful. When the man later returned it, she slipped back into the pew and leaned playfully against my shoulder, smirking. I loved being here with her. At the end, the botafumiero swung above us and Meg’s upturned face revealed awe and delight.

After Mass, we discovered a side chapel to Mary I hadn’t seen before. Its cool, quiet darkness was pierced by a gorgeous sunbeam, sparkling with dust motes. Others ignored it or snapped a photo, but we both just stood in silence, taking in the breathtaking beauty.

Later, café con leche turned into a late lunch of pizza and wine while we talked about every possible topic. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to spend time with her. She felt like family, like a soul mate, like someone I’d known all my life. We walked around the old town, peering into shops filled with Camino kitsch and laughing ourselves silly. Bikini t-shirts and keepsake plastic botafumieros were a ironic, hilarious contrast to the moving experiences we’d both had on this journey.

Later that evening, we joined a big group of pilgrims for dinner and, on the way back to the albergue, two things happened for me that would unravel my world.

Carrying her umbrella, Meg walked ahead of me in the dark, silhouetted against Santiago’s shimmering, wet cobblestones, when I felt a sudden, unexpected, and deep desire for her roll over me like a wave. As someone who mostly lives in her head, cut off from my sensual side, these feelings caught me by surprise and sucked me under, helpless, in the undertow. I’d never felt anything so powerful before in my life.

As soon as I became conscious of this desire, a second thing occurred: My mind tried to force the feeling away. No. You’re in a committed relationship with someone you love. No no no. You can’t feel this.

In that unguarded moment of rare and powerful desire, my life split in two. The path of my heart was to hold firm to my commitment to my beloved partner, my rock and best friend. The path of my soul was to learn from this beautiful, smart, funny woman and follow her anywhere.

Over the next year, this interior split between my heart and my soul would widen profoundly. Meg had awoken something in me that would not go back to sleep. For months I would repeat this refrain over and over: No no no. You can’t feel this. Withholding feelings never resolves, any more than controlling the tides, I didn’t know what else to do.

On returning to the albergue, we discovered the living area encircled with pilgrims and the lighting dimmed. Our kind hospitalero stood in front of the room with a wide cauldron set on a table before him. Within the pottery bowl, blue flames licked upward from a powerful alcoholic beverage.

“I invited you to this quiemada ritual because there is something special about this group staying here right now. I want to share with you,” he said.

We were his guests, and his gift to us was a rare glimpse into his Galician culture.

After a short introduction, he began to chant. As he spoke, our host ladled the beverage high into the air and poured it into the cauldron with a burst of dramatic flames. Across the dark room, I could make out Scott and Gary looking on from the kitchen. Beside me, Meg put her arm around my waist in a warm gesture and my knees went soft.

No no no. You can’t feel this.

Our host now invited us to give a small speeches as we were moved. While a few brave souls went up and took a turn, I had no words. Eyes sparkling, Meg stood before the cauldron, marveling over the heat and pouring out the ladle bravely as she spoke.

Then cups of the liquid were handed out, a concoction of brandy with bits of apple, orange peel, and coffee beans. It was incredibly hot, but delicious. According to the incantation, drinking it was supposed to burn away evil and protect our souls.

It wasn’t just the beverage that had me floating. This ritual, the elation of arriving in Santiago, my unexpected reunion with Meg, and these sudden and powerful feelings for her were, together, profoundly disorienting. As the ground beneath me shifted, I longed to grasp control of something certain, but all I could do was live one moment to the next, adrift.

When lost, find familiar ground. As the gathering concluded, I moved around the room collecting plates and cups from the guests. Meg and I returned the gift by not leaving our host with a sink full of dishes. Hot water running, we stood at the tiny counter side by side – one washing, one drying – and I delighted in being near her, laughing, sharing secrets. Truly, I was swept in over my head, further and further from land.

For a second night, I slept fitfully beside Mattias. My dreams were filled with her and I woke from them thinking again, You can’t feel this. Though clearly I was. As sleep evaded, I remembered the man I’d met in France who left his wife and four kids for a Camino romance. Was he sent to me as a messenger? What was I doing? I couldn’t stop thinking of her, peacefully asleep, just across the room.

What a terrible, amazing, beautiful mess I was in.

I had never felt more awake or unmoored or alive.

Eventually, the sun’s light seeped in and I rose to meet whatever the day had in store.

Many months later, I would realize that Meg appeared on my journey to wake me up. As a Camino archangel, she would burn away the inessential, tear down my walls, and help me discover the truths of my life I’d worked hard to ignore. We would never be together (though at times I would wish for this very much), nor would I reveal my true feelings. But in the days we walked to Finisterre, Meg would show me what was holding me back and reveal to me the essence of who I really am.

It would take more than a year for me to proudly claim, Yes, I can feel this, and strive to live that passion every day. Looking back now, I realize how profoundly grateful I am for the gift of Meg’s presence at this seminal point in my life – because she played the role of midwife as I birthed a new, more authentic me.

For when your heart is open and you trust the angels you’re sent, that sort of thing can happen on the Camino.

6 thoughts on “Day 39 – Sleepless in Santiago

  1. What a whirlwind!
    The highs & lows of Camino are intense even after the walking finishes but it sounds like you weathered them well. Buen Camino, Jen 🙂

  2. There are so many things I could say about this post. Wow. THIS is the Camino, absolutely and completely, and your last line says it all. When our hearts are open and we’re willing to trust in the angels sent to us, the results are transformative. I continue to be amazed (and yet, not amazed at all) that experiences like this can happen on the Camino. I’m so glad that you were open to Meg’s presence and her affect on your life, and it sounds like you are still learning and practicing these powerful lessons. I can’t wait to hear more about the last days of your walk (you’re going to post them, right???) 🙂

    Sometimes I read about your experiences on the Camino and nod my head in wonder, noticing the similarities to my own experience. I struggled with what to share in my own blog (and a lot was left out… my own need for privacy, and for the privacy of others). But lets just say that I had my own Camino angel come to me at the very, very end of the journey… inexplicably and powerfully. When we saw each other we both knew that we were meant to see each other. THAT story is still continuing, though I’m struggling to sort it all out in my head and my heart.

    Wouldn’t it be great to one day sit down and have coffee and share these stories? I can’t wait to hear what comes next in your journey. 🙂

    1. You have no idea how much this means to me, Nadine. This was a really, really hard post to write, for a whole host of reasons. I must have re-written it four or five times. Loving your blog as I do, I know you get how hard it is to tell this much of the truth.

      I *will* write the rest, I promise. 🙂 The next installment goes out tomorrow. And if you are ever up for a cup of coffee – virtual or real – I would love the chance to talk. As I’m working on my book about the Camino, I’m increasingly eager to hear other pilgrim’s stories – especially the hard-to-write-about stuff that won’t ever show up on a blog. 🙂 You are a star. Thanks so much for your comment and for our connection.

      Hugs – and much gratitude,
      Jen

    1. Hi, Anita! Thank you so much for your kind and generous comment. I do hope you’ll listen to that call to go on the Camino; the friendships you make and the way the journey stretches you is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

      I love your blog and am honored to have you comment here! Buen camino!

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