Commencing training in earnest

Last week, I had a shock when I looked at my calendar and realized only 8 weeks remain between now and when our flight leaves. Soon after, the serious, daily walking will commence soon after. Holy cow.

After the shock wore off, I got online and started researching how to train for a 5K or al long hike like the PCT. Now my calendar is full of yellow blocks indicating 3 and 4 mile walks and longer more arduous hikes. Cross training and swimming on alternating days will give me a fighting chance at keeping up with my fit friend and fellow peregrina, Nancy.

So! I’m on the first day of official training and enjoying a stop at the Abbey Coffeehouse. Very Camino Francés!

Reverse Camino Day 11: The Holy Door of Santiago de Compostela

If you had the chance to walk through a holy door, would you?

I wondered this myself when I learned the Pope declared 2016 the Year of Mercy. In a burst of holy abandon, cathedrals the world around pried off the barriers, flung open their doors, and invited all to enter. Santiago’s cathedral was among them.

What’s a holy door? Like a lot of things Catholic, it is one part physical (a real door) and one part symbolic (a spiritual portal). Catholics believe that the act of walking through it—accompanied by confession and communion—absolves all one’s sins. To walk through a holy door grants the seeker complete forgiveness.

Most of the time, cathedrals’ holy doors are locked up tightly, unused for decades. When a specific sacred day of the church calendar falls on a Sunday, believers flock through all year. 2016 was different. Remarkably so. The Year of Mercy opened every holy door around the world for a whole year in a sign of generous welcome, orchestrated by a merciful Pope.

In the back of my mind, the doubter frowned, Really? A holy door? Pfft. Hocus pocus. For though I believe in the healing power of forgiveness, I don’t believe in the idea of sin.  The word seems archaic. The concept punitive. But as I woke up on my second morning in Santiago, my heart yearned. Please, can we go? My seeking soul craved this ritual of entering, releasing, and receiving. So, yes. Yes, of course. And off “we” went.

Enter

With its hewn stone walls and thick, oak doors, Santiago’s baroque cathedral reminded me of a castle. Impressive. Imposing.

Set away from the glorious, double-staircased main entrance, I couldn’t find the holy door. After walking around a while, I stopped at a little cart selling pilgrim trinkets. The women pointed me toward the right side of the cathedral saying, “Around, around.” As I did, I discovered a new part of this massive structure.

At the top of the expansive, stone staircase were two modern-day security guards flanking the entrance. Near them, a woman crouched on the ground, begging. Something about the scene made me briefly consider turning back. The trio reminded me of the teaching that when you’re about to do something spiritually significant, you find lions guarding the gate. A part of you begs not to do it, to be cautious, stay safe. A little shiver passed through me. Yet as I approached, one of the security guards smiled at me in greeting. A friendly lion.

From the bright light of morning, I stepped into the deep dark of the doorway. I went forward, unseeing, into a curving corridor of rock, like a passage, a canal—so symbolic of the mother church, the sacred feminine. I felt the cool air and rough stone under my palm. It was unnerving not being able to see, but maybe that was the point.

Four, five, six steps through the darkness. Then before me, like a brilliant sunrise, was the resplendent, gold-adorned altar. A grin spread over my face in recognition. A homecoming.

Release

Confession is like cleaning out an over-stuffed closet. This ritual allows the participant to let go of that which no longer serves. Every day, small slights, moments of meanness, and hasty words accumulate inside us. Purging them mindfully makes space in our hearts for more love and compassion.

Nervous but willing, I walked a circuit of the church in search of a priest. Around the perimeter of the cavernous cathedral dark wood confessionals waited silently. Each had a posted schedule of hours and the languages spoken by the priest inside. Frankly, I felt afraid of doing it wrong, looking stupid. I couldn’t find any in English. I almost gave up.

On my second pass, a young, dark-haired priest exited a confessional nearby. Handsome and exuding calmness, I approached him to ask if he would hear my confession.

“I do not speak English well, but I can try.” He smiled reassuringly, casting down his long lashes and clasping his hands in front of his black cassock.

In that moment, I was struck by the remarkable intimacy of being face to face, standing close rather than in the curtained confessional. Taking a deep breath, I reminded myself this man stood in Jesus’ place, not to judge me but to offer love and acceptance.

“Father, bless me. I have sinned.”

My mind went blank. Nothing was weighing on me, no dark secret to bring to light. Then I remembered that the opposite of sin is love. What is blocking love in my life?

“My heart is so hard sometimes, so closed,” I began. “I hold people away from me, judge them, and create distance to protect myself. I judge myself too. It is so painful. Especially when what I really want is closeness and love.” The words dissolved into air.

“God knows our hearts,” he responded gently. “We can look to our mother Mary as an example of love and compassion. For your penance, say five Hail Marys and reflect on her life.”

This feels like a gift to me, not a punishment. Beautiful, world-worn Mary is a welcome companion.

He continued, “May God grant you pardon and peace. I absolve you of your sins.” Lifting his hand in the air between us, he made the sign of the cross over me. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

“Thank you, Father.”

Disoriented, lighter, I walked into the connected chapel devoted to Mary. In quiet contemplation, a simple solution arose: I must make time for those I love in order for warmth and connection to grow. Just make time. It’s that simple.

Receive

Knowing the Pilgrim Mass would be packed, I arrived an hour early for a seat near the altar. Completely alone on my knees, the waterworks that had started on my arrival the day before continued. I cried, just over-full with gratitude, relief, joy to be here in this city of my heart.

As Mass time approached, I suddenly found myself surrounded by a chatty group from Canada. From overheard conversation, I learned they were more than a little proud of having raised the money to make the botafumiero swing (about $700) and honored with reserved seating at the front—where I was. As they squeezed in around me, jostling to all fit in, I felt myself bristle and prickle. It is so much easier to love one’s neighbor in theory. I pretended to be in prayer, remaining on my knees with eyes closed to be left alone.

But as in most moments like this, I paused to ask myself why this Canadian deluge showed up and what their presence was trying to teach me. Had I not just had a moment with a loving priest and confessed how I hold others at a distance? Had I not admitted how judging others brought me pain? Had I not just resolved to actively seek closeness and love?

So, I looked to consider the group anew, and here is what I saw: They were happy to be pilgrims. They were proud of their teamwork. They felt joyful that this special gift would bring happiness to everyone present. Honestly, they were so adorably excited. Like puppies.

I made the sign of the cross over my body, got off my knees, and sat back in the pew. Within moments, I was chatting with those closest to me and expressing my thanks for their generosity. They tolerated me sitting in their space. It worked.

The last time I had received the Eucharist has been three years earlier just as my pilgrimage ended. By then, I had already resolved to leave the church for good. Even though I was no longer a practicing Catholic, I knew I would go up to the altar, hands open. Not only was this the final step for absolution, I always, always felt called to receive communion.

“El Cuerpo de Dios.”

“Amen.”

Back in the pew, surrounded by waves of musical organ vibrations, the tears began afresh. A cascade of beautiful faces went through my mind: All the loved ones who supported me being here. All the people I’d met so far on this journey. All those who touched me on my first pilgrimage. All the people who helped me through those difficult three years between journeys. I am so grateful. My whole body shook with sobs of gratitude as the cup of my heart runneth over. Thank you thank you thank you thank you. 

My soul replenished, I realized this feeling is what I seek to feel every moment of my life. Utter gratitude. For everything.

“The Mass is ended. Go in peace.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Say what you will about stuffy Church doctrine and hocus-pocus, I’d still walk through a holy door any day.

Taking the question mark from 2019

For about six months (maybe longer), the title of this blog has been “Jen’s Camino Journey 2013, 2016, & 2019?”.

As of today, the tickets to Europe are in my possession.

When I heard the news that it was official, the reaction sounded like this:

  • Oh my GOD!!!! (excitement, repeat 6 times)
  • Oh. My. God. (dawning reality of the commitment, repeat 4 times)
  • Holy shit! (just once)
  • (silence)
  • Oh my God! (acceptance)

It’s real now, not just a rumination. Because I’ve walked twice already, I know that both highs and lows await, even if I don’t know precisely what they will be. My body knows how to walk. My heart knows how to open. My mind knows how to problem solve when needed.

But every pilgrimage is different. A a spiritual seeker’s wisdom is always deepening. Even if it’s the same path, it’s a different me, a wiser heart, a more clear spirit who walks.

In 2019, however, it won’t at all be the same physical path. More on that in a future post!

Wish me a buen camino and an Oh My God for good measure! 🙂

Jen’s reverse Camino Day 10: Santiago de Compostela

After walking four days from the Atlantic, I finally arrive in Santiago to find the party has already started.

Total distance on foot: 0km
This day in 2013: Day 39 Rest day in Santiago

I should be asleep. Instead, I’m lying awake next to the open window, bathed in sounds of a nearby festival.

The thump of distant dance music, teenage girls’ singing echoes in the narrow streets, and screams of glee from whirling amusement riders reach me in the cool night air. The revelry outside matches my inner joy. How did they know to throw a city-wide party on my arrival to Santiago? Soon a dog starts to bark, and my roommate, a distinguished, elderly Frenchman, fully commits himself to snoring. But it doesn’t matter. Not even a chorus of big-nosed men could dampen my spirits.

I am so happy to be here.

Elated to be in Santiago again, just breathing its air, occupying this place is to be swept up in the memories of three years ago. The joyous arrival with my new friends. Celebrating the completion of a seven-week journey. Discovering how powerful I am and how important it is to share my life with others. This city holds the best parts of myself, reminds me of what I can accomplish and who I really am. I feel whole and complete at last.

After wandering through the old city, I found myself standing before the albergue where I stayed with Gary, Scott, Mattias, and Meg. Deciding to check in, I told the hospitalero how much this place means to me. That warm conversation is how I ended up in the best bed, away from the bunks, enjoying the invigorating night air.

*   *   *

In a short conversation with fellow-pilgrim Alexandra, we discover one of those marvelous Camino coincidences: three Junes ago, she stayed here at this same albergue just two days before me.

“We almost met!” she says.

Later, she holds up a huge, leather bound book and says, “I found it!”

Confused, I ask, “Found what?”

She flips through the pages and says, “I looked for the guest book from three years ago and found this. Is it yours?” She hands me the book, open to a drawing of a stained glass window, and a list of changes I would make in my life.

“It is!”

Tears spring up as my eyes skim over the words. It’s like receiving a love note to myself from the past. This entry declared all I dared hope to create in my life. Seeing my own handwriting and the date inked on the page reminds me how joyous and uncertain I was that I could bring that happiness home with me. As I look over the words again, I realize that I embody so much of it now. I’ve become what I once only dreamed.

“Thank you for finding this!” I say to Alexandra, misty-eyed and grinning. It would never have occurred to me to look for the old guest book. Reading the words again, a feeling of certainty and closure settles in. The old journey is truly complete, and a new one is just beginning.

*   *   *

That evening, I enjoy the luxury of not having to walk anywhere. Feet up on the coffee table, I chill out in the communal living room with my journal and a Spanish-English dictionary.

In all the chats I’ve had with locals the last few days, the recurring problem has been with verbs.

When I studied Spanish long ago, I was in literature and advanced classes, skipping the basic-but-essential repetition of verb conjugations in past, future, conditional, etc. To this day, I can only speak Spanish in the present tense. For the last week, I’ve been telling people, “I do the Camino three years ago.” I really want to solve this and sound less like a two-year-old.

So while pilgrims enter and check in, and the two hospitaleros talk and laugh behind the counter, I’m nerding out with the dictionary. After an hour of looking at all the conjugation charts, I painstakingly write the following:

Yo caminé el camino hace tres años.
Hace tres años que yo caminé el camino francés. Ahora yo he volveró para caminar una segunda vez en la otra dirección.

I know this is still awful. The dictionary can only take you so far.

I enlist the help of one of the hospitaleros, and his face scrunches up in hilarity as I read the sentence. He knows how the words should fit together, but struggles to explain why. We dance around the differences between

  • to do the Camino vs.
  • have done the Camino vs.
  • did the Camino

When I ask about a finer point on the verb to do, he shrugs with a smile and tells me he is originally from Italy, and Spanish is only his second language. This sends me in to a fit of laughter for unintentionally barking up the wrong tree.

In spite of this, he teaches me two helpful phrases. In English, there’s no expression for the act of returning by the same way you’ve already come (see how choppy that is?). In Spanish, there are two ways to say it: voy de vuelta (I’m doing the return.) and voy al revez (I’m going in reverse). Even though they still don’t solve the verb problem, I happily commit these phrases to memory.

After a good half hour, here’s what the American and the Italian end up with:

Hace tres años que hice el camino francés desde Francia a Finisterre. Ahora, voy de vuelta a Francia por comletar el viaje.

It’s been three years since I did the Camino from France to Finisterre. Now I’m doing the return to France to complete the journey.

Imperfect, but closer, and fewer future funny looks.

*   *   *

Sleep comes fitfully, interrupted by the celebrations continuing long into the night. Every time I wake, I remember where I am, smile, then nestle down under my cozy silk blanket, sighing with pure contentment.

I couldn’t be happier to be here. I am joyous to return by the way I’ve already come.

The practice of meeting your Camino teachers

Everything and everyone you meet on the Camino can be your teacher if you allow it.

Some of the most difficult experiences—physical pain, loneliness, doubt, conflicts with other pilgrims—can show you what you most need to understand and heal in yourself. This is because everything you encounter on pilgrimage is a mirror image of your everyday life, just concentrated and intensified.

Looking into that reflection, pondering the similarities and what they can to teach you, can be a transformational practice.

Two stories of loneliness

Walking the Camino backwards, for me, meant walking alone. Even though dozens of people crossed my path each day, the numerous three-minute conversations about why I was going the wrong way led to feeling lonely at times. I felt “othered,” a backward-walking novelty, not part of the group. As a result, I looked forward to stopping at a cozy albergue with a communal dinner so I could feel connected with people and have meaningful conversations. We all need to belong.

Story One: A hard teacher

On this particular afternoon, I was feeling the familiar pain of loneliness. In my everyday life, I distract myself with food, social media, and watching programs online. On the Camino—especially without a phone—those go-to comforts weren’t available. I felt more emotionally exposed not having them, but that was the point. If the Camino were completely 100% comfortable and familiar, it would just be a vacation. I went seeking more.

The albergue that evening was almost empty, promising a quiet night’s sleep. For dinner, I decided to have the menu peregrino at the in-house café. In hindsight, I feel badly for the young Russian woman who was there, alone, to enjoy the wifi.

“Do you mind if I join you for dinner?” I inquired, hopeful. She had a friendly face and seemed like she’d be good company.

“No problem,” she replied and set down her phone.

I asked her all the usual pilgrim questions about where she’d come from that day, how she was feeling, when and where she started walking. If you’ve never done the Camino, this might sound intrusive, but it’s quite common. Pilgrims often swap stories about how their body feels, about pilgrims they know in common, who took the bus due to injury, et cetera.

As we chatted, the phone on the table emitted a jingle, her eyes darted to the device. She tried to ignore it, looking back at me, but not successfully.

“Excuse me a moment,” she said, picking up the pink phone, a smile dawning and tapping rapidly. My dinner came. She put the phone back on the table.

I asked about where she was from and in the middle of telling me, her phone jingled again. This time, she looked less torn. “One moment,” she said, picking it up. More tapping.

Allow me to pause here and say that it wasn’t her responsibility to help me beat my loneliness. She was on her own journey.

On the third jingle, however, she dropped the pretense of talking with this grey-haired, American stranger. “Excuse me,” she said and made a call. Body turned at a right angle to me, she spoke for the time it took to finish my dinner.

As if I didn’t exist.

Now, if I’d been on a vacation, I’d probably now rant about the evils of cell phones and the degradation of courtesy. But this is a pilgrimage. If you’re willing to look into the mirror of circumstances, you will learn a lot about what you need to change about yourself and how you do your life.

After I got over my crocodile tears, paid my bill, and left her talking, I realized something important:

This is how I do my life. The woman sitting across from me was me. Like her, I check out mentally using my devices. I wish humanity would vanish. I get annoyed by people, especially my spouse, when I’m in thrall with something online—to the point of similarly rude, inconsiderate behavior. Furthermore, I regularly prioritize connection with those not present at the expense of the people right in front of me. Ouch.

That is what the young Russian woman taught me. I realized that the connection I seek is right here, in front of me. Not just with others, but with myself and with the Divine.

As easy as it would be to judge her, the lesson was right there for me to accept. The teacher showed up. And the student was ready. I now seek to change my behavior so that I connect with the people around me—seeking them out—and turn off my devices so I can really be present with them.

Story Two: A gentle teacher

On a different blue day, I showed up too early at an albergue that wasn’t yet open. Its name referenced an angel, and my heart felt certain was supposed to be here. So I stood anxiously outside, unsure of what to do.

A short, round woman with curly dark hair slowly approached the albergue. Her face was radiant, and she smiled warmly at me, making eye contact.

“You are staying here tonight?” she asked in Spanish.

“I hope so,” I replied.

“Just one moment, I will unlock it for you.” And I realized she was the hospitalera. She was letting me in, despite arriving so early in the day.

Gracias, señora,” I replied.

“Anna Maria,” she corrected gently.

When we entered, she showed me where to put my sticks and asked, “Would you like some coffee?”

Surprised by the familiarity and warmth, it took a moment for me to answer sí. “Good,” she said. “We will sit and have some coffee.” She hobbled to the kitchen and I heard clinking cups behind the glass door.

Sometimes you meet teachers on the Camino who impart the lesson with such honesty and compassion, it percolates into your soul.

Anna Maria and I sat across the table from each other in the quiet. As we began to talk about the debilitating pain in her knees and about my first life-changing Camino, the connection felt so real. “It’s hard walking alone,” I confessed.

She channeled the answers I needed to hear.

“You may feel alone,” she said. “But you can never be alone.” The Divine is always with you. Love is always with you. The loneliness you feel is something you create. Open up to the abundance that’s already waiting for you.

Tears sprang to my eyes. I needed to hear these words so much. Anna Maria reached out across the table and held my hand. Tears welled up in her eyes too. “You are never alone.”

And, just like the Russian woman, Anna Maria taught me something important about my life. By being willing to listen and accept, I understood how I make my life harder than it needs to be trying to do everything myself. I can connect more deeply with What Endures. It’s there waiting for me.

The practice of meeting your Camino teachers

Any time we have an intense emotional response on the Camino, we are meeting a teacher. The feelings can be everything from frustration and anger to deep love and profound, wordless connection.

Anytime this happens, it’s a moment of truth, an opportunity to reflect on what the feelings mean, and what they can show you about your life. The practice of reflection can guide you through the second Camino—the one that happens after the walking ends—into transforming your life.

Reverse Camino Day 9: Aguapesada to Santiago

After walking four days from the Atlantic, I finally arrive in Santiago. But I’ve been walking much longer than that.

Total distance on foot: 12.3 km/7.6 mi (plus three years)
Towns traveled through: Alto de Vento, Quintáns
This day in 2013: Day 40 Santiago to Negreira

Now I walk alone, I told him.

The helpful man saw me weeping and looking lost fifteen minutes ago in a park outside Santiago de Compostela. I show you, he said. Grateful, I followed this speed-walking, parka-wearing pilgrim with the thick accent through the busy streets toward the cathedral.

 *   *   *

I’ve been walking eastward from the Atlantic toward this city over the last four days, but in reality, it’s been much, much longer.

In the time since I was last here, I returned home, emotionally naked as a newborn, to discover my life no longer fit. There’s no way to count the miles through an unending dark night of the soul. How do you measure facing your deepest fears and ultimately finding the will to live in spite of them?

Eventually, I committed to traveling that road out the darkness. Of learning to tell the whole truth, not just the diplomatic one. Of understanding the deep attachment I felt to Meg, my joyous pilgrim sister. Of deciding whether to stay in my marriage. Of learning that walking outdoors is my salvation and that opening my heart—even when it feels terrifying—is the only way to survive this condition called being human.

It took me all this time to learn how to live an undivided life. If the true Camino starts in Santiago, as they say, the last three years have borne it out; I have been a pilgrim ever since. One step at a time.

 *   *   *

Although I’m hoping to arrive in time for the noon mass, I take it as it comes. I’m only ever 60% sure I’m going the right way, but up I go through little cobbled villages of quiet, cobbled houses. Past the quiet dude inexplicably carrying an inflatable giraffe head. Past the funny, flirtatious Puerto Rican man from Queens. Past the inquisitive, sixty-something lady from Queensland who says there’s a party in Santiago. Up a hill, stopping for a bar’s strong coffee and blaring news. One foot in front of the other.

In a quiet suburban neighborhood, I chat with a local guy about the direction of Santiago as a cat rubs against his black slacks. He points into the morning sun and says, Down the road then to the right en el bosque. Through moss-covered trees, the bright sunlight streams into my eyes.

Then, at last, in a clearing at the top of a hill, I see it: the cathedral. There it is! My eyes well up, and a grin spreads across my face. The emotion spills over I continue walking, as I have all these years, to that distant place where the real pilgrimage began.

*   *   *

My fast-walking, helper-guy stops to chat with a friend, but I continue, feeling as though pulled toward the square where all pilgrims arrive. When he catches up with me, I’m almost there. Gracias, I say. Thank you for helping me. Now I must continue alone.

He nods knowingly and gives me a friendly pat.

Up the steep street, I see the cathedral from the top down—first the spires, then the facade, the doors, and the double symmetrical stairs—and finally I arrive at the plaza, overwhelmed by emotion. Here is where it all started. Here is where I felt happier than anywhere else on the planet. Where I arrived with dear Scott and Gary. Where I met Meg. Where I realized who I really am.

My hands are shaking. My knees feel wobbly. Here I am. At last. Collapsing onto the cobbles of the cathedral plaza, I’m overcome with gratitude and relief and joy. I lean forward, sobbing, my butt in the air, elbows and knees on the cold ground. I don’t care that my pack is still on or that dozens of sight-seers might witness my body shaking with sobs. I’m here. I’m here at last. I’m so grateful. For everything.

Finally, when I sit up and wipe my eyes, I lift my chin to see the clear blue sky and silhouetted spires, grinning madly. Oh my God, I’m here. It’s so beautiful! I recall the last arrival and the hugs and tears I shared with Gary. My spirit is bursting.

I notice a well-dressed woman approaching me, bowing slightly. Hand on her heart, she says in an Irish accent, I was so moved to see you arrive. The pin on her lapel is a tiny gold angel. Reaching down to touch my shoulder tenderly, she smiles at me. I smile back at her, grateful but speechless.

You must have walked a long way, she says.

Sometimes all we need is to be seen. This Camino angel blesses me with her acknowledgement. The truth in her words make the tears start all over again.

I have walked a long way. I really have, I reply. And it was worth every step.

Pilgrim wisdom and the US elections

Ever since the US elections, the messages have come in flurries.

From Ireland:

How are you holding up today? Am thinking of you here.

New Zealand:

We have earthquakes, you have Tr*mp. It’s not a perfect world.

Belgium

How are you feeling with all that’s going on in the US? Have been thinking about you… x

France

Everyone (people, country…) has to face its demons before growing inside. The world shows that it is the time to do that. Think about yourself and your close ones as light warriors. And remember, whatever happens, at the end, LOVE WINS.

This gesture of reaching out by Camino friends all over the world has touched me deeply.

The Camino community is bigger than nationality

When I was a pilgrim, every time I sat down to dinner with a group, I marveled at the international presence. Every time. Sometimes there were faces from seven, ten, fifteen countries all gathered around a table to share a meal and break bread. We conversed in many languages, and sometimes only with smiles and laughter (maybe the best language of all).

Many pilgrims marvel at this. Some of them say the same thing I did, “All world leaders should have to walk this route before taking office. It would teach them—as it is teaching us—that the similarities are far greater than our differences.” When it comes to hearts, countries don’t matter.

We are a world community

In the wake of our election here in the States, I share the sentiment Nadine expressed in her recent post. This isn’t a political blog, but it would be a denial of the Camino’s gifts not to mention what has shifted. Every person on the planet is affected by what has transpired—the messages I’ve received are proof. We are not separate.

There’s a lot at stake. We are being given the opportunity to face our shadow, as my French friend so wisely observed. We have a choice to make about whether we’ll give in to fear, or rise above it. This question is alive in the US, but it is a global one.

Fear informs, but it doesn’t dictate

On the Camino, pilgrims learn about fear. I faced mountains that scared me yet rose above them. I faced my fear of losing control and became braver and more open. I faced the anxiety of being lost and learned to walk with it.

What the Camino taught me is that fear isn’t a reason to stop. It is a gift that allows me to pull from resources both inside me and from community. Fear just makes you take stock. But it doesn’t stop me anymore.

This is what it means to say that the real Camino starts in Santiago. I have experienced what it means to overcome fear. As we face this confusing, uncertain time in my country’s story, I can use this resiliency on the path ahead. All of us can.

Pilgrim wisdom

What pilgrims know (that our leaders may not) is that we need each other. Some can cook, some guide, others tell great stories or speak better Spanish. We know how deeply satisfying it is to give and receive, even when sharing resources is challenging. We worked together toward a common goal, and help those who are struggling. Even if we could do it alone (and some do), we’ve experienced firsthand that together we are stronger.

This wisdom is useful.

The path ahead

It is my prayer that we choose to welcome everyone to the table, no matter which flag we wave, nor language we speak, nor which Divine name we pray to.

May we commit to living what we learned as pilgrims: the value of welcoming others and of looking out for one another.

If it is possible to live this on the Camino, it is possible everywhere. Let us commit to the path.

Reverse Camino Day 8: Vilaserio to Castelo (part 2)

Hours of solitary walking later, I stop at a cafe in Negreira to order coffee and a bocadillo sandwich to go.

Sipping my coffee at an outdoor table, a young man approaches. We haven’t exchanged a word, I already like him. A few days from his last shave, he has deep tan skin and short, curly locks. We smile warmly at each other, and I say, “Hola, buenas dias!”

He greets me in Spanish and, situating his bicycle, asks me where I’m from.

Los estados unidos,” I reply.

He’s amazed that an American can speak anything but English. “And so well!”

I laugh. “Gracias.”

“I’m Rafael.” From Cuba. “Like the archangel,” he says, smiling. He is one of those people with whom I immediately feel a deep connection. He radiates love.

Rafael sits with me for a short but animated, open-hearted conversation about our respective journeys, where we’ve been, where we’re going, and why. He’s traveling without a map, so I show him mine so he can going off the Camino to visit a stunning, secret waterfall further down the Galician coast. It’s not the words we exchange, it’s the love.

“What a beautiful soul you are,” he says, eyes boring into mine. He speaks the truth. We see each other.

They say you can tell whether you’ve been visited by an angel or a demon by how you feel when they leave your presence. After we exchange emails and hug goodbye, I’m glowing.

Rafael, in case you didn’t know, is the archangel of healing.

*   *   *

The thing with liminality is that you can glimpse it, but it’s fleeting. We’re not meant to live in that rarefied space all the time.

The rest of the day is unexceptional, bordering on challenging. In fact, I can’t even find my way out of Negreira. After countless backtracks and asking for direction, it still won’t release me from its clutches. I note that nothing in me wants to stop and just get a bed here for the night. Meg and I stayed here last time, and I can’t do it. I’ve got to keep going, break the pattern, and get as close to Santiago today as possible.

For all my effort, I’m eventually rewarded with a smooth trail along a river and friendly pilgrims who point the way as my fatigue grows. Then, I take one single turn, and I’m completely lost. I merely ascend from the riverbanks to the street by a sandy trail, and the arrows disappear. My map shows the bridge that’s directly ahead of me, but something isn’t right. I’m tired, I think to myself, but I can do this.

Crossing the long concrete bridge, I remember nothing about this place from the last time. There’s a bar at the end, so I stop there to ask a local if I’m on the Camino. He addresses me in slurred Galician, a mixture of twang and boiled octopus. I comprehend only his pointing gestures first to the west and then north along the street. Neither of these options seems right.

I’ve got to get back on the Camino. Muttering to myself and staring at my guidebook, I proceed on the north option he indicated along a quiet rural road. No arrows for at least a half mile. After ten minutes, I pass a house whose occupant stares at me as I pass. This can’t be right. Panicky nausea sets in. Two more steps, and I turn around to head back to the bar by the bridge. The old Galician guy is still standing out there, watching my slow return. I can’t ask him again. It’s useless. I just can’t.

So I attempt the other way he suggested, going about three blocks uphill near a school, but there’s no one else around to ask. No arrows. No cairns. This isn’t right either. I stare at my useless map. Tired, hungry, and all options eliminated, I don’t know what to do.

Against my better judgment, I go back to the bar. The guy is gone now. When I walk in, the stools are filled with no less than nine older men, all of whom turn to stare at me without saying a word. Either I’m an oddity or completely unwelcome, but feel intimidated. I fight the urge to run and instead ask the bartender for an orange soda. He serves me the drink, I pay, and then flee outside to the empty tables.

It’s mid-afternoon now, and I’m truly stuck. Lost. Tired. Miserable. The tears start before I even sit down.

Moments later, I hear a shuffling sound behind me. The bartender gently sets a small plate of bread rounds with a generous assortment of charcuterie. On the house. I look up at him with tear-stained face and choke out a moitas grazas. He hesitates. Does he want to help?

“I’m lost,” I say in Spanish. “Do you know where the Camino is?”

“Oh, uh…” He points to the other end of the bridge from where I’d come, and then to the left. “I think it’s that way, under the bridge.” But I’d already walked from that direction.

“I am going to Santiago. To the east,” I say. My Spanish isn’t good enough to convey more. “I see no arrows.”

“Oh, I think maybe you go under the bridge. To the right.” It’s the only option not tried. I thank him, and he bows slightly and makes his leave.

Sure enough, after a few minutes of walking, I realize he is right. But I’m so weary, and tired from the anxiety and embarrassment, the sense of relief evades me.

Instead I pitch a fuming fit at myself. I was wrong! I made a mistake! I hate making mistakes! Angry tears start falling. I hate that old guy for watching me walking stupidly everywhere and not saying anything. And in the bar they all stared at me without offering any help! I feel like a total idiot. I look like an idiot–especially in front of all those people. My whole life I’ve tried to be perfect, and all I ever do is fail!

This backwards Camino thing is pressing all my buttons. There’s no way I’m going to succeed at perfection, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. It’s what I do. It’s how I am.

A new thought arises: I wonder where the perfection urge comes from in the first place. I’m the older of two, the big sister, the first born. If I got it perfect, no one would get mad. Being good was how I made everyone happy.

What if that’s a lie? What if I don’t have to be perfect?

Suddenly, this truth dawns on me like a shaft of light: Even if I do make mistakes, what if I’m intrinsically okay? Suddenly something deep shifts within me, a muddy, slippery tectonic plate shlunks into its rightful place. I don’t have to be perfect. 

I’m swamped with the relief of releasing this forty-year-old burden. As if I’ve just liberated a massive weight from my pack and left it on the side of the trail.

Walking the Camino is the cheapest, most effective therapy ever.

*   *   *

Of course, about a mile down the path, I cross a cobbled, medieval bridge which I remember with perfect clarity. It’s gorgeous waterfall cascades between an old mill and cute, whitewashed stone houses. Two pilgrims splash in the shallows. I remember this. Of course. I just needed the detour.

*   *   *

I’ve walked way too many miles today than is sane or reasonable. I’m dusty, sweaty, tired, and weary—and I still haven’t arrived yet. A few pilgrims pass me going west, but I don’t want to talk anymore. I just want to get wherever I’m staying tonight. After crossing the bridge, I don’t notice the scenery. My feet ache. Trying to keep the pep in my step and hang in there, it’s all bravado now.

There’s a slog up an interminably inclined street. Its sidewalk is covered in loose bricks and laid out in constantly-changing widths to accommodate trees, , utility holes. I can’t just zone out or I’ll twist my ankle on a slanted driveway entrance. At the top at last, I turn onto a side street, hopeful to find the pension in my book. I’m only a few miles away from Santiago. With no reservations, they may not have room for me.

A block down through an odd, colorful neighborhood, I find signage that matches the address in my book. However, a huge metal gate is drawn across the driveway. Are they closed? Does this mean they’re full? Bravely, I slide it aside as it rattles and set neighborhood dogs to barking. Down the drive to an adorable two story home with a full porch, there are lots of shoes on the step. Oh God, don’t let them be full!

A few anxious minutes after I knock, a wiry, fast-talking man comes to the door and greets me in Spanish. I’m not catching all the words, but I inquire about the prices of the rooms. His reply is so fast, but I only hear the word “no” before concluding they’re full. I’m out of luck for the night. Now I have to find another place. I’m crushed.

“Do you know if there are other albergues nearby?” I manage ask as my voice warbles with emotion. A tear escapes without my permission.

Siii…” he says cautiously, like there’s a question mark at the end. “I need to look up the number.”

I need water. I can’t believe I’m being so forward, but I ask him for a glass. If I have to keep walking to Santiago, I’ll need it on this hot afternoon. While he’s gone, I try to pull myself together. I can do this.

Returning, he hands me the cool glass and asks gently, “Pardon me, but why do you not want to stay here?”

“I want to, but you say there are no rooms.”

Si, there are!” I’d misunderstood him. I laugh as another tear leaks out. God, I’m so tired.

“Oh! I don’t understand! I think there are no beds! I’m sorry!” Saying this makes me realize that I’ve got to work on my verb tenses.

My host settles me into a beautiful, quiet private bedroom with a separate bath. After a restorative shower and a batch of laundry, I sit in the back orchard in a comfy chair, enjoying the scenery of the hills I’ve climbed and descended.

I sit and write in my journal to recount the day and take stock.

I’m nearly crawling out of my skin not being able to contact Mary. It’s been four days. I’m afraid that she’s afraid. Maybe I should just accept what is.

I feel nervous about Santiago tomorrow. So much there. Not sure where to stay. Do I go back to the albergue where everything started? If I don’t, will I regret it? My sense is to go there. To trust. See what comes up. 

I’ve returned here for gratitude for the changes in my life, to reclaim my soul, and walk my whole self home. But I also remember how I fell apart after my first Camino, how I struggled for so long to integrate its lessons. I’m afraid. I don’t know if I can stand the test of arriving, of remembering, of being completely undone a second time.

There’s only one way to find out. After today’s revelations, maybe I’m more ready than ever.

Reverse Camino Day 8: Vilaserio to Castelo (part 1)

The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience. ~ Emily Dickinson

Total distance on foot: 15.2 mi / 24.6km
Towns traveled through: Cornado, Santa Mariña, Olvieroa, Negreira, Aguapesada
This day in 2013: Day 41 Negreira to Santa Mariña

First thing in the morning, the same condescending barista that checked me in last night is at the counter again. After a good night’s sleep, and no longer exhausted and weary from walking, I feel a desire to connect and discover her better nature, if she has one.

Approaching the bar, I glance at my watch and ask her, “Did you even sleep?” I see you. I see you working here night and day. 

A light sparks in her eyes. “Yesss…” A grin spreads across her face.

“It must be difficult working so many hours.” All that repetition, all those revolving pilgrims everyday.

“No, not too difficult,” she says, her body square with mine. Yesterday she talked with her back to me. “I am from here, in this village, and I am lucky to have a job,” she adds with softness.

There isn’t an ounce of impatience in her voice now. We’ve made a real connection, however momentary. Maybe we all just need someone to see us for who we are, to meet us where we are and just listen.

While she makes my café americano I ask, “Have you walked the Camino?”

“No,” she replies flatly. “I don’t like walking.”

“Me either.”

Surprised, she looks at me. “No? Then why are you walking?”

“I had to. I felt called to. I walked it three years ago, and it changed my life. Now I’m walking in reverse for gratitude.”

“Again?” Her slight frown shows I’ve given her something to think about. There’s something amazing about this pilgrimage. Maybe she’ll discover one day.

*   *   *

I am walking for gratitude, it’s true. But another part of my reason for returning to Spain to “go backwards” is to connect with the Divine. Emily Dickinson once wrote, “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.” On my first Camino, I had several encounters with something vast and loving and far wiser than I. And, for whatever reason, those experiences don’t happen as often or as intensely in my everyday life.

So I’m back.

I suspect that many pilgrims have similar moments of pure peace, deep understanding, and euphoric joy. However, as I’ve read pilgrims’ numerous narratives about the Camino, I note with frustration how many skirt around describing those very ecstatic moments Emily Dickinson mentions. While we’re walking out there, our soul is open. One moment, you’re walking on the solid ground and, the next, something transcendent happens. What is that—and why don’t we find words to express it?

One reason I want to avoid describing these experiences is because they defy logic. Spiritual encounters don’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny—nor should they, perhaps. I just note with some humor that I’d prefer to reference science and data to support my theories.

The other reason is that I don’t want you to think I’m nuts, dear reader, and want to avoid being subject to your skepticism. However, in spite of these, I know firsthand that the Divine speaks—through messages, coincidences, through people and myriad creative channels. It wants to connect. I can’t say for certain what these encounters mean—except perhaps to confirm we’re not alone—but trusting them has led to wonderful changes in my life. Perhaps my retelling will inspire you to trust in your own experiences of the Divine, no matter how illogical, and inspire the healing and change you seek.

*   *   *

Years ago, when I began my own journey of emotional and spiritual growth, I awoke one sunny morning with a very real sense that I had a wing coming from my right shoulder. It was more like a nub, really, a radiant little bump on my scapula with the potential to be more. At this astonishing realization, I frowned and thought, What the heck? It’s not every day that one hallucinates a new appendage. Yet there was a rightness about it, not scary, but merely perplexing and completely out of my life’s experience. Huh… I have a kind of wing thing back there. And then I went on with my life.

A year later, I saw an angel intuitive (coincidentally also a fellow peregrina) who validated this awareness as a good omen from the Powers That Be. She encouraged me to trust it and be open to messages. In the time since then, especially when I’m feeling really open and joyful, I wake with the sensation that this energetic wing is still there, changing, growing in to a tiny fan of white feathers.

What the heck, right?

Whatever this sensation is, it feels like a sign about who I really am. Maybe we all have a secret truer self than we believe is logically possible. A gift. A superpower. A wordless connection with the Divine. Anyway, in the midst of daily living, they’re easy to overlook or brush off. It doesn’t mean you’re not a living miracle.

*   *   *

When I left Finisterre three years ago, it felt like ripping two vital parts of myself apart. While transporting my body back home to Oregon, my heart protested, saying over and over I’m not ready! A message I ignored. What else could I do but go home? However—and this is important—although I physically left Spain, my soul stayed rooted out on the rocks of Finisterre. In the intervening years of this painful split, I created a life my soul would want to return to.

Now, after three years’ absence, returning again to this place is emotional. A profound relief.

To finally stand on those rocks again is to know wholeness at last. I have retrieved what I lost. With no lost parts, no lingering questions, no division, everything in me feels united—body, mind, heart, soul.

Now I would walk my whole, holy self home.

*   *   *

This morning, walking with this inner wholeness, I feel amazing. Galicia is her stunning self. The early golden sunlight glows through the spring-green leaves of trees. Shadows and light play across the path through tunnels of moss-covered stones. How stunningly beautiful and magical everything is that I  stop walking just to absorb it, to really take it in. I don’t care that pilgrims stare at me in wonder. I am in love with the world, the glittering streams, the distant sunlit hills, and the whispery eucalyptus forests.

In the middle of this fragrant woods, I recognize a little dirt slope to my right with a small hole dug into it. It’s still there. Three years ago, Meg spotted a nest of bumblebees here in this very spot. We stopped and stared at them with delight as they bumbled along their happy comings and goings. Marveling.

I grin at the memory, overflowing with joy. Suddenly, I’m awash in memories of my stunned attraction to her and the bolt of energetic lightning that went through me in her presence in Santiago.

My soul opens to the ecstatic experience. As I walk, I feel taller, almost regal. Then, natural as anything, two gorgeous white wings unfold behind me, like they’ve been tucked up and waiting for the right moment to unfurl. The astonishing sensation of their feathered weight is accompanied by a sense of rightness. No more nubs and half-wings. There they are.

What Meg showed me, I now feel to the center of my being. It’s not just part of me anymore—something to be brushed off or tolerated—it is me. I am it.

I walk on toward Santiago, illuminated from the inside out.

Reverse Camino Day 7: O Logoso to Vilaserio

Annoying the Germans, getting lost, and trying to live with an open heart

Total distance on foot: 15.2 mi / 24.6km
Towns traveled through: Olveiroa, A Picota, Maroñas
This day in 2013: Day 42 Part 1 and Day 42 Part 2

I’m annoying the crap out of the Germans. No. Let me correct that. It’s mutual.

Yesterday, the first pilgrim I encountered in the morning was a tall German striding like he was making a dash for the finish line. As he passed, he looked at me and sternly said, “Wrong way.” No smile. Nothing.

What the…? I was shocked.

Then this morning, a German woman stops in her tracks to interrogate me. “What are you doing?”

“I’m walking back to France,” I reply.

“The Camino isn’t set up to walk backwards,” she informs me. Her insistence provokes instant ire. Seriously? 

She is mid-rant about how I’m doing this incorrectly when I interrupt her to say, “In the past, Santiago was halfway. I’ve already walked it once, so now I’m finishing.” Then, annoyed, I continue walking and say over my shoulder, “Buen Camino!”

I don’t mean it. Judge me if you will, but I could easily have substituted a swear.

This is really pissing me off. I’m clearly succeeding at the thing they insist is incorrect and not possible. Do they say it just to be right? To show they’re superior? What gives someone the right to comment on my path, anyway? It must have something to do with the German sense of order and discipline.

Whatever the reason, I’m not amused. I’ve worked too hard to overcome perfectionism to let myself be judged by a total stranger. If it keeps happening, I don’t know what I’m going to do. It is seriously infuriating.

*

I’m having breakfast and my first cup of coffee when the hospitalera introduces me to an huge group of Spanish pilgrim cyclists. She says proudly, “This americana stayed at my albergue three years ago! I taught her to say ‘thanks very much’ in Galician—and you know what? She remembered how to say it!” My host beams and says, “Go ahead!” The whole group of cyclists swivels their heads toward me.

I’m still sleepy and now crimson-faced from flattered embarrassment, but I manage to say, “Moitas grazas!

A few ohhhs come from the cyclists, and I grin at them. Then I recognize a few! They’re the guys I met in front of Ruby’s hotel in Finisterre the day before. The one guy who teased me about speaking English bids me a good morning (perhaps I’ve redeemed myself?). I feel happy to see familiar faces.

Before I leave, I give the hospitalera a big hug and a final moitas grazas. She says, “Visit us again in three more years—and bring your esposo!”

*

Five minutes down the road, still grinning, I remember my walking sticks and go back to retrieve them. Then I’m out again on my own in the cool morning air for a long day’s walk. I can hear the whooshing hum of a dozen windmills lined up along the distant hill. Birds are singing in the sunlit forest. The sound of running water from an invisible creek gurgles through the trees. The road is flat and well-graded so each footstep crunches as I walk. I’m lost, then not lost. Confident, then uncertain of the way. I remember being here. Then I forget. Am I on the way? Was I here? Ah, now I remember.

This is what it’s like to walk the Camino backwards. I’m living in past and present all at once.

Before long, I hit the steep hill where Meg and I collected gorgeous blue-green rocks and—same as yesterday—I start bawling, just wordless uncontrollable sobbing. I miss her. It’s something deeper too. As I ascend this hill, the past is shedding like bits of dry skin behind me. My old, constricted way of living is sloughing off.

I miss living with my heart open.

When I came back from Spain three years ago, I resolved to change my life. Full of grand plans, I was going to see friends more often and connect more meaningfully. I was going to change my livelihood and start doing what I loved. Exercise was going to be a regular part of my life as a result of rediscovering how much I loved being outdoors.

But since that time, I’ve slowly shut down. I’ve become increasingly isolated from caring friendships, still not doing work I love, and struggling to show my true self to the world. Instead, I distract myself with screen time and swap my authentic self for the presentable, PC version I think everyone wants to see.

Change is hard.

It’s not that I’m back to square one. My marriage is renewed in a way I didn’t dream was possible, and maybe I am closer to doing more satisfying work. I just see a huge chasm between where I am and where I want to be. Walking on this very terrain reminds me that I’ve settled for less since I was here last. Walking over the land where I admitted aloud to understanding, supportive Meg what I really want in life brings it all back. I can’t pretend here. I remember. I want more.

As pilgrims pass me downhill, I try to look fine. I sniffle, but grin at them. I wipe my eyes, but say buen camino. There is more grieving to do, but I set it aside. Sometimes you have to just watch yourself make the same choices over and over again until you change them for good.

*

Fortunately, I have time to sort it out. I have weeks of walking ahead of me.

In the meantime, I notice as I walk that the whole region is in full-on springtime soil-preparation mode. Huge agricultural machines are out in force—tilling, spraying manure, dusting with lime, and filling the valleys with the sounds of growling diesel engines. Later in the day, the path is more level and for a half hour or more, I can survey the machines’ progress as I approach. Occasionally, I wave to a passing farmer. In the distance, I spot a lone pilgrim far ahead who–like me–is also walking east toward Santiago!

At one point, I get completely lost up on a hill above dairy country. About 100 feet back I saw a huge white sign stating in Spanish this is an alternate route of the Camino. Tracking helps me determine whether I’m on the trail, but I see no stick marks, no pilgrims ahead, and no sign of boot prints in the mud. The good news is being lost gives me privacy to go poo—which I desperately need to do—and successfully dig a cat hole in the soft soil.

Once relieved, I take stock: I’m lost, but not panicky. I know my way back, even if I don’t know the way forward. I’m okay, I reassure myself. Just retrace your steps.

As I stare at my map, I realize this is the exact same place that Meg and I got lost three years ago. I can even see the dairy and farm below where we sat and watched the cows rounded up by a woman on a moped. How uncanny to be lost in the same place. Is there a vortex here? Or some Galicia magic? I wonder if I’ll meet a witch on the way.

Maybe the Camino isn’t set up to be walked in reverse, but it can be done. At the white sign, I realize I just missed the turn and am on my way again.

*

The last few miles of the day seem interminably long as my body aches from walking on pavement. As I stop to fill my water bottle at a community fountain, the east-walking pilgrim appears beside me! I gather up my pack as he fills his bottle, and we are ready to depart at the same time.

Gesturing with his arms in a sweeping motion toward the path, he says, “Ladies first” in an unmistakable accent.

“No, no. After you,” I grin.

“Shall we walk togezzah?”

“I would love that,” I say.  Yes, Heinrich is German. He is kind and curious, though embarrassed by his English skills. We’re headed to the same albergue. How novel to have a walking companion for the final two miles!

*

As many times as I’ve lived it, I always forget what a touchy mood I’m in when I arrive at an albergue feeling tired, hot, and hungry. Today is no different. I’m immediately offended that the barista insists on speaking English (insinuating that my Spanish isn’t good enough). She’s abrupt and terse. There are a litany of rules.

  • No using the clothes dryer if you hand wash.
  • No hanging clothes in the laundry room.
  • No hanging clothes from your bunk.

Do they not care that we’ll walk around sopping wet tomorrow?

When I get a snack at the restaurant, the barista hovers and whisks away my plates before I’m done. Later, she sneers at me with disdain when I tell her the coin-op computer isn’t working. I’ve been anxious all day that I haven’t sent Mary an email in three days and hope she’s not worried. Anyway, I’m told there’s no fix for the computer. The reception here couldn’t make me feel less welcome.

*

The upside is that after laundry and a shower, Heinrich and I join another man in the bar where the three of us have dinner together. Despite my walking alone, I have actual dinner companions. In an additional twist of irony, Ralph is also from Germany. He is great company, speaks English flawlessly, and tells great stories throughout the meal. He’s a hoot. My spirits lift.

So I take back what I’ve said about Germans. They were my saving grace tonight.

Maybe my heart is more open than I realized.