Watch what you wish for: The most surprising gifts of my Camino

Before setting out to walk the Camino de Santiago, I stated confidently, “I want to be changed by this experience” and I meant it. My life had been comfortable up to that point, if a bit stalled, and the calling I felt to walk it was both exciting and daunting.

“I want to be made uncomfortable,” I told my friends. “I want to be in unfamiliar places, to not know where I’m going to sleep at night or where my next meal comes from, and see what this teaches me.” Truly, I had no idea what this intention would set in motion.

Change does not come easily to me. Despite being a seeker, I will defiantly ignore signs, resist messages, and otherwise thwart my own awakening because change is so freaking uncomfortable. Not surprisingly, my pilgrimage to Santiago was a spiritual two-by-four. Instead of a cozy, controlled life, I plunged—body, mind, heart, and spirit—into a nomadic experience across northern Spain. The lows were grueling, lonely, and painful, at times causing me to doubt everything about the journey and life. The highs of this experience were delightful, awe-inspiring, and liberating.

The relentless extremes over seven weeks rattled my equilibrium. Quiet woods gave way to cacophonous cities. Rugged mountain paths contrasted with miles of bone-jangling concrete. The delight of new friends conflicted with my desperate need for solitude. In jam-packed albergues, feelings of loneliness seemed laughable. In a single day, my emotions ranged from irritation to joy, from despair to profound gratitude.

Since I had limited control over the extremes of my environment, I was forced confront my rigid attachment to external conditions and then let them go. I had to. I kept running into metaphorical brick walls thinking things shouldn’t be the way they are. I shouldn’t have this pain in my arches. That guy shouldn’t be snoring. It shouldn’t be raining. I shouldn’t be attracted to people I’m not married to. 

The Camino kept showing me how my misery (or happiness) always starts with my thoughts—not the circumstances around me. I got this lesson repeatedly, each one presented a greater challenge. The Divine was determined to manifest my intention.

Slowly, I became content—no matter what was happening. As I shed my judgments, attachment, and dog-like desire to be liked, I began to find a sense of balance residing within. My ego—my me-ness—began to wear away until I was luminous. “You look ten years younger,” one acquaintance exclaimed.

In this spacious lightness, I found clarity where there had once been murk. Forgiveness took the place of blame and regret. Laughter and honesty replaced my habitual cautious smallness.

My emotions flowed. I wept tears of frustration, fear, joy, warmth, loss, exhaustion, anger, gratitude. I laughed—genuine, un-selfconscious horsey laughing. Snort laughing. Bent over, gasping for air laughing. Where did that come from? How long had I been living under a thick crust of seriousness?

The Camino fundamentally reoriented me to claim my own power. When I found that my thoughts and attitude couldn’t rescue me, I let myself fall into a God-shaped net. As a self-avowed control freak, this was truly a miracle. Learning first hand that the Divine supports and loves me, I began to experience soul-level trust that things would unfold exactly as they should. Spiritual writer, Anne Lamott, says there are two kinds of prayers, “help-me-help-me-help-me” and “thank-you-thank-you-thank-you.” I got really good at them both.

What surprised me most about the Camino was the community. Although I’d obsessed over every minute detail about what to pack and how much it weighed, I didn’t give a single preparatory thought to the people I would meet on the Way. Apparently, when I stated my intention to be changed by my experience in Spain, the Divine lined up incredible men and women who would reveal the perfect lessons for me. Through them, I learned that I am a small part of a beautiful, complex web of souls on a journey toward wholeness—and that we can contribute much to each other’s lives if we allow it.

The Camino wore me thin in the best possible ways and I became free. My intention had come to fruition because I did change. I discovered the truth about who I am and what I have always been but had forgotten: whole.

This only took me forty-nine days, fifteen pounds of gear, and a flight to Europe. Okay, that and a dogged determination to mine every moment of this pilgrimage for inspiration. I loved it. I hated it. And now I know why the Church recognizes pilgrims for our efforts and forgives our sins; if you’re paying attention to the inner heart-and-soul journey as you walk the physical one, the Camino will cleanse you from the inside out.

The only thing to fear

“Your antagonist is fear,” she said.

She is one of the insightful people in my writing critique group of seven people, all bound to help give birth to our respective books.

For my submission last week, I turned in some preliminary writing that was more brainstorming and plotting than actual prose. I hoped for encouragement.

“And this,” she said, holding up my eight sheets of ideas, “looks like fear.”

I was shocked. This was not at all the kind of feedback I was expecting.

She looked me in the eye and said, “You just need to write. Stop thinking and start getting the words on the paper.”

I left the meeting feeling hurt, called out, and pissed off. I cried in the car ride home.

But after a few days of thinking, I realized she’s right.

*   *   *

Though I hardly ever listen to the radio, I turned it on yesterday and Sara Bareilles’ song Brave was on. Have you heard it? It’s amazing.

Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave . . .

And since your history of silence
Won’t do you any good,
Did you think it would?
Let your words be anything but empty
Why don’t you tell them the truth?

Okay, Universe! I get it!


*  *  *

Reading about someone’s writing process can be as fun as watching them gaze at their own navel. I won’t belabor my point, but I will say this: Telling the truth is HARD. No less than three people have asked me in the past week, how do you do it? How can you write about real people you know? Don’t you worry?


I worry about making my partner look like a schmuck (which she most certainly isn’t). I worry that “Meg” will never speak to me again. My mom and aunt read this blog, as do some of my clients, my boss, and many friends—both from the Camino and at home. I worry about what they will think.

Despite the pressure I feel to say everything nicely and keep topics unoffensive, I have to be brave. I have to fight my lifelong urge to be tactful. I have to just tell it like it is.

Here’s why: I’ve met too many pilgrims who went into their journey hoping to be changed by it, and did not know how to sort out the experience afterward. Telling the truth is a gift to myself and—hopefully—to anyone who struggles after their Camino.

I’m taking a week to work on my writing and may not update the blog for a bit. I’ll be back with more tales that aspire to inspire.

*   *   *

It’s not ALL hard or scary, though!

In the last week, I’ve taken three different hikes with wonderful people. Getting outdoors is awesome nourishment for the heart and soul.

The first hike was a fourteen-miler on Eagle Creek with new Camino friends—including one of my favorite bloggers, Elissa Green from

(c) elissa green
Used with permission — photo credit

I loved this photo Elissa took of my favorite hiking shoes (Brooks Cascadias) and a Checker Lily.

(c) elissa green 2
Used with permission — photo credit

Everyone talks about these cool falls with the tunnel carved into rock behind them. Elissa is pointing to me and Laura. (Don’t look at this one, Mom!)

(c) elissa green 3
Used with permission — photo credit

Then! Mary and I took a hike on Saturday in the Opal Creek area on a gorgeous day and saw tons of wildflowers. At one point we could hear the rushing sounds of three separate waterfalls. Amazing!

IMG_20150418_134049_381 (1)
Last, I met Carol and Nancy (more Camino friends) for a hike around Willamette Mission Park. We talked gear, albergues, and life. Such fun!
(c) carol routh

I counted—that’s about 23 miles in one week. Yay!

Let’s get out there be brave together!

Essential packing guide for the Camino de Santiago

Lots of soon-to-be-pilgrims agonize over what to pack for their Camino. I know I certainly did!

When I’m not writing about the Camino, I’m actually a professional organizer and, this week, I got an idea for a new way to approach packing for the Camino. Although “how to” guides are not the norm on my blog, I’m excited to share this!

Remember those “choose your own adventure” books? My idea combines this with a packing list, leaving lots of room for personal preferences. Best of all, it removes some of the stress and confusion.

A request: If you like this list enough to share it, please send friends a link to this post, rather than a copy of the original document.

Here it is! Jen’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” Camino Packing List!

Big thanks to Kim, Lisa, Rebecca, and Karen for your ideas, help, and extra eyes!

Want to see what I ended up putting in my own pack?

I’d love to know what you think! ❤

How the light got in: A post-Camino reflection

We weren’t terribly observant Catholics when I was growing up, but my whole family was in attendance at my first holy communion—the first time God spoke to me. I was holding a hymnal in my kid-sized hands as the organ pealed its first crystalline chords.

In song, the Divine asked me, Whom shall I send?

In response, my reed-like little voice sang out, Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? … I will go if you lead me.

Standing there in my veil and white lace dress, symbols of purity, I trusted with every ounce of my being that I would be led and protected always.

*   *   *

Becoming an adult made me forget. Being in the literal driver’s seat deluded me into thinking I had all the control. My unconscious mantra—Do it by yourself—taught me not to ask for help from anyone, least of all an invisible god. By the time I heard of the Camino in my later thirties, any sign of my youthful and unwavering trust in the Divine was gone.

When I heard a call to walk the Camino, my reaction revealed just how stuck I’d become: Seriously? No. Ridiculous. I don’t want to. I have no interest in Spain. I don’t like exercise and the very thought of walking five hundred miles is insane. No. I don’t want that kind of uncertainty. I couldn’t handle it.

I wanted to control. Everything.

Despite my lack of preparedness, the Camino was relentless in its pursuit of my soul. References to the Way appeared in random reading materials and unexpected conversations. Scallop shells revealed themselves in the most unlikely places. Even with all these flirtatious hints, the seeker must assent to her own transformation. Yes is just a word, but it’s astonishingly, remarkably difficult to utter. The longer I waited, the more I felt it.

It’s amazing to think about how much I fought the very thing I needed. Ego is perfectly content to sit in its own stink of self-righteous, small-minded, and destructive habits. Saying yes is terrifying because it calls us to face our own destruction. With yes, we become nothing, yet everything: luminous and present with the Divine. With yes, personality melts away. The ego wants no part in this appalling arrangement.

Eventually, I came around to a grudging admission of the spiritual merit in attempting this uncomfortable experience. Like a cautious lover, I relented. I said yes. And yet again. And again many times until I had clicked “purchase” for my airline tickets.

*   *   *

If I would be spiritually transformed by the Camino, my inner fortress of protection would have to crack. As Leonard Cohen wrote, “That’s how the light gets in.”

The Camino broke me open. It had to. I needed to find a new way of being. My years of resisting help meant I would not respond to subtle messages. Splitting open the layers of defense required hard, sometimes painful encounters until I learned to trust. It was not fun. For example, after a week of walking, my feet became so sore that I limped with every step. When I began to doubt my ability to finish the walk, I cried. I cracked open, admitting my helplessness. In this weak place, I asked for help, and some light got in.

Despite being with lovely new friends, I felt broken at times by debilitating loneliness. At one point—in a miniscule, one-star hotel room that reeked of old cigars, I thought to myself, “What would your father think of you here? This is what you’ve come to, all of what you’ve made of yourself.” These painful thoughts broke me open, and as I reached out for friendship, more light got in.

One day, as Muriel and I walked together on the meseta, she observed, “It seems like you’re sorry that you were born.” The truth of her words struck me to the core. I had no reply—only my silent agreement. For many days after she’d made this poignant observation, I reflected on my struggle to show up in life and merely take up space.

As my feet pounded the path, I listened to the wind and my breathing, and I wondered for the first time: Am I really allowed to trouble this person, or any person, with my story? Is it okay to ask for help? Or actually receive it? Am I allowed to say no or tell someone I’d rather be alone? Is it really okay for me to be here? This stripped-bare honesty helped the light get in.

In the most trying and desperate moments, my ego was smashed to shatters. Yet that suddenly-vacant space made room for my heart to open. It was a hard-earned blessing. Slowly, over the miles, I emptied out the sludge of my small living, and miraculously, despite myself, the light got in. An abundant waterfall of love, laughter, wisdom, and insight made me realized how loved I am. Pilgrimage revealed to me how to let go of my fearful striving and trust something greater than myself.

*   *   *   *   *

That isn’t the end of the story, of course.

In a workshop I attended last fall, the following words hit me like a spiritual two-by-four: Enlightenment is not transformation. ~ Dara Marks

I suddenly realized why everyone claims that the true pilgrimage starts in Santiago: the Camino is an experience of enlightenment. It gave me a glimpse, a tantalizing taste of how life could be. it showed me how I could let go and trust, how light and joyful I could be moment-to-moment.

Completing the Camino is only half the journey. Enlightenment isn’t transformation. It wasn’t done with me yet.

Like many pilgrims, I really struggled after I got home from Spain. Some people call it the Camino blues, but it’s more than that. I could not resolve what the pilgrimage had revealed to me despite obsessively re-reading Brierley’s guidebook, looking at my journal, and drinking Spanish wine with friends.

It was nice to be home with my familiar people and possessions, but I struggled with the sense that something precious was dying—something I had to hang on to no matter what. And I lost it anyway. Into its place moved unspeakable sadness and longing.

Intellectually, I knew that the second half of the journey was about learning to live my Camino epiphanies in my life. “Bring home the boon,” someone said. But I hadn’t the faintest idea how to do this. I just felt terrible. I had to shake it off somehow.

Within a few weeks, I was back to where I’d started, repeating my life-long pattern of controlling everything. My Camino had revealed that my life could be better, but I didn’t know how to get there once at home.

I got stuck for a long time. Most days felt like walking through a deep, dark cave with no exit. And, erroneously, I kept thinking, I can do this. I can figure it out. I thought had to find my way through its passages alone. This is the part of the journey many never walk, or if they do, few talk about it. In the months that followed my Camino, I went down many blind alleys, trying to find my way—out or though, I didn’t care.

After struggling for over a year, Dara’s words were like discovering a bright-yellow, spray-painted arrow on the wall of my labyrinthine tunnel: the Camino gave you enlightenment, now you must move toward transformation.

But transformation doesn’t just happen on its own; it requires assent. Last week, almost two years to the day of my anniversary of starting the Camino, I remembered. Yes wasn’t just for that innocent seven-year-old me, or my reluctant, pre-Camino forty-year-old self. It was something I would have to choose again. And again. And again.

Yes is power. Yes commands armies of angels to move heaven and earth in support of the seeker’s goal. Now I understand that yes is the key to moving from enlightenment into transformation. Say it again: yes to uncertainty, yes to change, yes in spite of fear.

In the weeks ahead, I’ll be sharing a play-by-play of my second, inner Camino. The one in which I transformed my life. I’ve talked to so many pilgrims struggle with Camino blues, my hope is that my story will help you walk your own journey that begins after Santiago—and say yes to the transformation that awaits.

Answering the call with a big fat NO

The irony is not lost on me that I’m currently writing a not-yet-published post about how 7-year-old me completely trusted Spirit … and how I said yes to my call to the Camino in order to receive the spiritual gifts from it.

I’m sitting here looking out on the garden and pouting angrily at the realization that I have to say yes again. God is calling me toward something great, something amazing, and all I’m doing is digging in my heels in defiance. No! Nonono! I want to do it myself! I’m three years old again, grabbing my toy back. I want to control my life. I don’t want to change! I don’t care if the change would be better for me; I want to stay stuck here and mope about how awful it is.

The very idea that I could just say yes to the Divine plan is anathema to my ego’s agenda.

But here I sit at the very edge of the known again, looking out into the cloud-shrouded void of God’s plan—just like I did three years ago when I said yes to walking the Camino. This moment is present for everyone, any time, on any day, but I can feel my feet dangling off this particular cliff, dirt on my pants and gravel under my palms.

Dammit. I know something awe-inspiring awaits on the other side. I just hate that can’t control what that something is or how I’ll get there. Damndamndammit!

I’m sure there are more spiritually awake people in the world who hear a call—a request by the Divine to release control—and in trust, give an unflinching yes. I am not in that crowd. For me, the choice is obvious (say yes!!), but resistance is the first and most powerful response.

My tantrum isn’t over yet, but I know where all of this is headed. I’ll bet you do too.

Mt. Hebo Indian Trail — The Camino continues

The hiking season has officially begun for me! Over the weekend, I was treated gorgeous vistas with an enthusiastic guide. Nancy introduced me to a stunning trail that was once used by Native Americans and pioneers to traverse between the Oregon coast and the Willamette Valley. Eight miles of this long trail have been reclaimed and are now part of a national forest.



What made it fun was talking about the Camino de Santiago. Nancy has already purchased her airline tickets to walk the pilgrimage this fall. While we hiked with her exuberant lab mixes, we talked about gear—from water-carrying options to the myriad shampoo/soap/laundry detergent solutions. I shared my ill-fated towel experiment choice—a washcloth-sized chamois—and regaled her with my elaborate post-shower routine: dry one arm, then squeeze out the tiny chamois. Dry the other arm, squeeze it out. Wipe down half my leg, squeeze, etc. All the while, I shivered in a breezy shower stall.

If I had to do it all over again, I would have brought a colorful rayon sarong—large enough to absorb water and big enough to wear as a wrap while dressing. It makes a great skirt for church or adds flair and warmth around the neck. The material is thin enough to dry quickly. Plus, a sarong makes a great seat in the grass. Hindsight! How silly it had been to bring a tiny chamois!

Being out in the woods was soul satisfying, and despite my winter sloth, my body felt strong. The best part of the hike was the vista at the top, with the Pacific Ocean in the distance, and the pregnant gray-white clouds above close enough to touch.

This hike was the first of many in 2015. I’ve got a dozen more more hikes planned into fall and will be posting about them periodically. The Camino de Santiago continues into life. Caminar para vivir!

Final update (4): Taking myself less seriously

Soul-searching is a good and valid endeavor, but so is lightening up. In honor of my birthday month, I’m giving myself new challenge—a mini-Camino—to practice taking myself less seriously.

Day 1-8: Click here to read

Day 9-16: Click to read

Day 17-23: Click to read

Day 24: Laugh. Stand in front of the mirror and do deep belly laughs.

Okay, so I felt like a total dork doing this. Self-consciousness is the light heart’s enemy. But I did think I looked kinda cute. 😉

Day 25: Think about how much I love my nieces. Do something to show them.

These two girls are the light of my life. I was already sending a package to my brother, so I included a sweet card and some even sweeter treats in a decorative mailing envelope. I like sending them fun surprises!

Okay, and then? All five of these messages showed up in my Facebook feed in the same day. Thanks, Universe.

Continue reading “Final update (4): Taking myself less seriously”