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.

Post-Camino culture shock

Is it me?

Being back home after the Camino is strange. Everything seems different when held in the light of comparison. It’s not just culture shock, it feels like priorities shock.

For example, after greeting shopkeepers across Spain with an “Hola, buenas dias.” (Every single time. This is just how it’s done.), I walk into a store in my town and am ignored. Not even eye contact. My greeting is not returned. I feel invisible.

Or, last week, when I walked for five miles around my neighborhood, exactly one person said something friendly to me in response to my hello. At least a half dozen others went out of their way to avoid meeting me or making eye contact.

Or how this week, on my way to work, a woman tailgaited me for two miles and honked when I finally made my turn. I felt so threatened by the closeness of her car to my bumper that my hands shook for fifteen minutes afterward. I actually cried in despair. Why do I matter so little? Why such a hurry? Why so angry?

The distinction between there (the Camino) and here (my town) is jarring.

In praise of the Camino life

Obviously, not everyone has been changed by my pilgrimage. It would be unreasonable and borderline insane to expect that. My glow isn’t necessarily contagious (though wouldn’t it be cool if it were?). Right now, my heart is just open and trusting and vulnerable.

If you’ve walked it, you know that the Camino isn’t utopia—there are spiritual sleepwalkers and selfish people everywhere—but it does give you an experience of how truly kind humanity can be. For weeks, I was surrounded by people caring about each other, having conversations about deep and meaningful topics, and sharing a common goal. We all tried to take good care of ourselves and looked out for each other.

In the Real World vs. Camino matchup, there’s a clear winner. It’s hard not to feel a bit despairing when comparing the two. As a remedy, I’m only going to places that are friendly. I’m driving less. I’m reaching out to loved ones near and far. These are ways to care for my tender, open pilgrim heart.

The devil you know

The other issue I’m facing post-Camino is the person I was before I left. In the weeks that elapsed before I flew to Europe, I had a mighty list of To Dos going. Honestly? I actually had two lists of To Dos—one for Camino-related tasks, and one for everyday life and work responsibilities. I had no less than 44 items on the regular To Do list and 57 on the Camino list. Dear reader, this level of focused output isn’t sane or sustainable.

At the time I thought, This is perfectly normal. Look how efficient and organized I am. I can definitely get all of this done before I go. I’ve got to. This must be done before I go. This is the voice of my Inner Tyrant. And she scares me.

For contrast, my Camino self got up around 6:30am and just walked. Later in the morning (usually after a good cup of coffee), I’d figure out where I wanted to stay for the night. No stress. My gut usually told me where I needed to be—or a pilgrim gave me a great recommendation. Day after day, I took things one moment at a time, one step at a time. I trusted there would be enough—food, beds, meaningful connection—and there always was. There was no reason to hurry or plan beyond the next few hours. I was free to enjoy the moment, the people, the place, the sensations of the moment—and I did. Over and over again. For Type-A me, this extended experience of non-attachment and not controlling was a revelation. I experienced firsthand how to live in the moment and feel deep peace with “not knowing.”

Unlike after my first Camino, this groundedness feels deep and enduring. But how do I know for sure that Manic Me won’t pop up again and take over at some point?

May the real self please stand up?

Maybe a lot of pilgrims experience this push-pull after walking. How do you integrate into life while honoring the slower, more grounded, more trusting way of being? I want to be more mindful and intentional with my time. I want to be less tech-obsessed without alienating my loved ones. I want to be productive without writing scary To Do lists.

One step at a time, I’m finding a way forward that isn’t exactly graceful, but it’s honest and true to my Camino’s gifts. Starting with body and home care, I’m developing regular rituals for maintenance and nourishment. Since last week, I’ve started adjusting my work schedule to create sanity and healthier boundaries. My next focus will be on meaningful connection with loved ones and setting aside writing time. It’s coming.

A note on writing: In case you didn’t know, I’m working on a memoir about the personal transformation that took place in my life after my first Camino. If you want to be kept posted about that project, here’s a link to sign up for news and info.

In any case, shifting back into “life mode” after my second Camino has been so much easier and less stressful than the first time. No comparison. I’m enjoying the process so much more.

And

If you have thoughts or insights on how you shifted back into life after significant travel or other life-changing experiences (or tips for dealing with aggressive tailgaters), I’d love to hear about them! We’re in this together, pilgrims.

(tap-tap) Is this thing on?

I’m back!

Back on terra firma, back in my own home, in my own bed, and feeling so so so grateful for so many things–life, love, and my blessed pillow. The seven-week backwards journey from Finisterre to Saint Jean Pied de Port was wonderful, weird, and full of characters, stories, and insights I’m eager to share.

At the end of my first Camino in 2013, I’d left a piece of myself–like a few spiritual ribs or a soulful femur–out at Fistera’s lighthouse, overlooking the moody Atlantic. For three years, these very real parts of me have sat out on the windswept rocks like a forgotten umbrella, waiting to be reclaimed.

The last time I was there, my life felt split in two, as I faced an immense decision about who I was to be in the world. We all come to this point eventually: Do I keep investing energy in keeping up the act or finally risk being myself? Should I keep playing the role of peacemaker and chameleon, or could I be the authentic, trusting, happy, loving, open person I discovered myself to be as I walked across Spain? I really didn’t know how I could do the latter without upsetting friends, business partners, family. So I set aside a vital, newly-discovered sense of self that windy June day.

On this return, I went back to that very place to reclaim my abandoned parts. I went to become whole again, completely–and then walk with my full, real self back to where I had started in France. Most of all, I walked back across Spain in order to bring this loving, authentic self home–back to my life, my friendships, my work, my family, my marriage. It was finally time.

And this I have done, I’m happy to say.

What a journey! I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

Truthfully, I’m a little rusty on the technology front! I seem to have forgotten how to type. It’s been eight weeks since I’ve spent more than ten minutes on social media. In fact, my email account was temporarily suspended halfway through my walk due to “suspicious activity” (it was me, using coin-op computers along the Way). It was a surprising relief to be tech-free for so long.

Anyway, rest assured: my reverse Camino tales, insights, joys, frustrations, and reflections are all on their way… in time. Just like on the Camino.

In the meantime, please know how grateful I am to you. Thank you so much for your comments, thoughts, prayers, love, support, and enthusiasm for this spiritual adventure that is the Camino. Thank you for cheering me on–and in some cases, cheering up my wife, Mary, in my absence. To be held in your mind and heart for so long is a gift to me, and I thank you. I hope your life is unfolding in love and trust.

Sending much love and Camino dust,
Jen

What will it be like walking backwards to Saint Jean Pied de Port?

For all the certainty I feel about my call to walk the Camino in reverse, it feels strange not to be walking toward something. Saint Jean Pied de Port is a lovely Basque town, but it lacks Santiago’s saint and the epic coastline of Fistera and Muxia.

If I were European doing this trip, I might literally be walking home. Though few modern pilgrims do, ancient peregrinos left a cozy bed—and voila!—their pilgrimage began. All they did was step out the front door and go to their closest cathedral, where pilgrims united with guards in tow. Once the whole band walked to Santiago, they turned around and walked home again. The closest I can come to simulating that experience is to return to the beginning of my original journey (SJPP) and hope to get a bed at the albergue where I spent my first night.

In reality, my walk is not a return to a location, but to a place within. To walk the Camino backwards and arrive in the Pyreneen foothills is to revisit who I was on April 18, 2013. It is an practice in noticing how the Camino has changed me and how I’ve used the experience to grow in the time since.

Oh, I was so adorably naive!

That day, I was so tired and jetlagged when I arrived—and so clueless. Where do I go? Why is the pilgrim office so far from the train station? Did they really have to put everything at the top of a hill? Why do the welcome center volunteers seem so gruff?

That newly-arrived pilgrim was so eager to have other people like her. So willing to put her own needs in second place to get along. There was no way this journey wouldn’t change her, make her more resilient, but it would have to break her first. It would have to challenge her so profoundly, that her old ways of being would break under the weight of their ineffectiveness.

Pretending nothing was wrong would stop working when her feet hurt so badly, she could barely walk. And later when she got a fever and an ear infection. Denial stopped working. Her body’s needs forced her to wake up and take action.

The pattern of trying to get other people’s approval would break when she repeatedly ignored her own needs to keep her Camino family together. Then, when they were all gone, she would face loneliness head on and discover what it would teach her.

Pushing down her emotions would stop working when she experienced a profound and magnetic attraction to another pilgrim. The feelings couldn’t be banished. This unfamiliar situation would push her to the edge.

At the beginning, I had no idea how the Camino would test me. Maybe it’s better I didn’t, but I’m glad angels showed up.

Camino angels

On that first day in Saint Jean Pied de Port, I met a man who told us how he left his wife and four children for a Camino romance. Even now, I marvel at how irrationally angry I felt about his story. (Chicken shit, I believe, were my inner words of choice. Not a very nice thing to call an angel.)

As I sat in judgment of him, I was blissfully unaware. I couldn’t have known I would meet someone who’d take my breath away 500 miles from that very place. I would face the very same dilemma.

Now, having lived that dilemma, I understand how human it is to want the more exciting path over the harder one. I’d been emotionally absent in my own marriage long before I left for the Camino. When I returned home, I faced a decision: to be as open with my wife as I’d been with Meg—or leave. There were really no other alternatives.

Would I have chosen the same if that Camino angel hadn’t crossed my path and given me fair warning? Had I not been so furious at his choice, would I have been as informed about making my own? In the end, I opted for integrating the Camino’s lessons. I chose to transform myself and re-choose my marriage with an undivided heart. That’s not the right choice for everyone, but for me, it was a path toward wholeness, of living an undivided life.

The power of intention

As I arrived in Saint Jean Pied de Port, I didn’t know any of this awaited me. My stated hope had been “to be changed” by the Camino, and I was. Or, more accurately, the Camino shaped me. And then I used the experience to change my life.

Looking ahead, retracing my steps will give me time to consider the soul-ground I’ve trod the three years since, and invite completion.

At least, that’s my intention for this return trip. Who knows what else it has in store for me?

And for you too…

If you’ve already walked the Camino, reflecting on the journey, its angels, and lessons invites profound spiritual and personal insights. You don’t even have to walk it backwards for this to happen! It’s enough journal, share, reminisce, and connect with others who’ve walked similar paths. What’s important is to make the conscious choice to apply these insights to your life and live them.

The rewards are worth the trip. ❤

Meeting Meg again

After two years of almost-silence, Meg emails me to say she’s thinking about leaving London to relocate to the US and planning a cross-country tour of organic farms. She asks, “Do you think I could see you while I’m in Oregon?”

Meg was a Camino archangel to me. Meeting her changed the course of my life as we walked together from Santiago to Finisterre. For many reasons, I was afraid to tell her at the time what she meant to me or how instrumental her example was in making major changes in my life.

Because of this, you can imagine the excitement I feel when she parks her truck in our driveway a few months later and walks up to the house. I can hardly believe it. It’s the real Meg. Not the woman I conjured up for so many months after we walked together, nor the one I pined for and missed, but the living, breathing soul on a new adventure. She is every bit as beautiful as I remembered, but I’m more grounded now. Content. Happy.

Meg stays with us for four days, meeting Mary, our friends, and hanging out. She’s been on the road for weeks and seems grateful for the warm hospitality. To me, her visit feels like an opportunity to bring things to completion somehow. Instead of the hike I planned, we decide to take a mini road trip together to my favorite wilderness retreat center whose main attraction are its hot spring-fed soaking pools.

*   *   *

On the drive up, we pass scenic gorges, rivers, and thick forests and reminisce about our shared journey and talk about what we learned on the Camino.

“I discovered my best self in Spain,” I tell her. “I felt strong and confident and happy. Walking with the guys was amazing because I realized how simple life could be. How easy. It was so liberating for me, ever the control freak.”

She laughs. There’s more I want to say, but I hesitate. Can I? 

“And then I met you. I had so much fun walking with you out of Atapuerca into Burgos, but didn’t think I’d ever see you again. One of the things that impressed me was your clear desire to walk alone. So, when we met again in Santiago, and you said you wanted to walk with me, I was shocked—and thrilled.”

“I’m sure,” she says, smiling.

“I was! Meg. . .” If I learned anything from my time with Meg, it was the importance of telling the truth. Keeping silent nearly destroyed me. I want her to know how much she changed my life, and this might be my only chance to say it. “Look. Here’s the whole story. . .” My mouth is dry. “I felt so attracted to you.”

From the corner of my eye, I see her look out the window. We’re driving over rutted road in the wilderness, and the truck bounces around suddenly. “Is this where you drive us off the cliff?” she asks. “Like Thelma and Louise?” We both burst out laughing.

“It’s nothing like that. It’s just. . .” How can I say this so she can hear it? “I met this woman on the Camino, and in all my life I have never been so powerfully attracted to another person—physically or energetically. I walked with her for five days and the feeling just got stronger. I was awakened by her. That woman was you.”

She doesn’t say anything for a moment, as if digesting my words. “But. . . wait. . . but you’ve been with other people.”

“I know. I know it doesn’t make sense. I can’t explain it. It’s like I woke up for the first time.” I need to slow down, so I take a breath. “What I felt for you was physical, but it was also energetic, like a soul connection. It shocked me awake. I’ve never felt anything like it in my life.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. And at the same time, I was also terrified. Of acting on it, of upsetting you, of hurting Mary. So I did everything I could to push it down, not let it show.”

“I had no idea.”

“You really didn’t?” I believe her, but I’m surprised.

“No.” She shakes her head earnestly.

“Wow, I guess I’m better at hiding my feelings than I thought.”

She laughs. “When I like someone, I’m always convinced they know.” I grin back. Isn’t that the way?

“When I came back home, nothing in my life felt the same. It took a long time to understand, but I had to figure out how to make myself happy. I didn’t know what was going on for you, but even if you felt the same, it isn’t fair to put the responsibility of my happiness on you. That’s not healthy or even right. I had to do the work myself. In the last year or so, I’ve gotten a lot clearer about my path . . . I learned so much from you, Meg. I’ll always be grateful.”

Now we’re parked at the retreat center office. We can check in at any time and go soak, but she’s still sitting here with me, listening intently.

“I’ve always wanted to ask you.” In for a penny, in for a pound. “I was kind of confused . . . when we were watching the sunset at Finisterre, you said ‘this is romantic,’ and I’ve always wondered . . .”

“Oh,” she interrupts. “Oh, yeah,” a grin spreads across her face. “I was just saying, you know, it was so beautiful there, and that guy came over and gave us wine. I was just thinking it would be a great thing to do on a date.”

“Well, that’s what I thought!” I laugh. “But then you started asking about whether Mary and I ever watched the sun set and how far we lived from the ocean. I was all like, ‘What does she mean? Is she saying what I think?'” At the time, I wanted to believe she was hinting we should be together.

“Oh, man.” We’re both smiling.

“I have to tell you, Meg, it took every ounce of effort I had not to kiss you just then. I forced myself to stare straight out at the ocean and not look at you. I couldn’t. If I had—I mean, I wasn’t sure how you felt, but I also didn’t want to hurt Mary.”

She looks at me. “Does she know about all this?”

“Yes.”

“God, she must hate me.”

“No. She doesn’t, actually. You didn’t do anything.” She laughs. “In fact, Mary and I had some good talks when you said you might be coming to visit. She said, ‘What kind of relationship would this be if I kept you from spending time with someone? Meg was a really important person on your Camino. I won’t interfere with that.’”

“Wow.”

“I know.”

“I wonder what I would have done if you had kissed me.”

Her idle musing makes me pause, but I know with all my heart that things happened as they were meant to. “I didn’t really know what was happening for you. I couldn’t risk it. I guess the dolphins were a good distraction.”

“Oh, my God! The goats!” Meg lets out a joyous laugh, remembering how I had heard a sound I mistook for dolphins in the ocean. They were actually bleating wild goats on the cliff below us. “That was so crazy!”

I’m grinning from the memory, but also with the pure and utter relief of having told the truth and requesting hers. I’m at peace. Now I know.

“So, I’ve shared a lot,” I say. “I can’t tell you how thankful I am for you listening. I’m curious how you feel about what I’ve said.”

Something about her demeanor changes, becomes softer. Is she touched that I ask her this? “I just had no idea that was going on for you. No idea. You hid it well!”

“That’s not necessarily a good thing.” I smile. That was part of the lesson too. I can’t hide anymore. I have to be myself.

“So, now you’re over it.” I can’t tell if her words are a question or a statement.

“Well. . .” It won’t help anything to tell her how I thought about her every day for more than a year. It won’t change anything to tell her how I forced myself to stop playing the “what if” game because I might literally have gone crazy. A soul mate shows up to wake you up; use the lessons and you’ll transform, but try to trap the lesson-giver, and you’ll both be miserable.  “I will always think you’re amazing,” I say from the heart. These aren’t the right words, but they’re enough. “Wanna go check in?”

“Sure,” she says. So we do.

 *   *   *

After six weeks of walking the Camino, my heart broke wide open. Only then, when Meg showed up, was I ready for the unflinching message she brought me: Are you living the life you want? And if not, what are you going to do about it?

Meg was a smart, curious, and witty messenger. The lessons she transmitted were powerful: speak your truth, be who you are without apology, be adventurous, and listen deeply. So deep was my need to hear these that I confused the message with messenger. I couldn’t see a way to live the lessons without her in my life. I was very lost for a long time before I came to understand this: Meg showed up on my path to awaken me, but she was not the awakening itself.

The attraction I felt for Meg almost destroyed my marriage. Keeping it a secret made it worse. In the year that followed my Camino, I discovered my wife is made of far stronger stuff than I ever imagined. Mary’s love for me and her belief in our relationship carried us through many painful, distant days. She waited me out as I unearthed the Camino’s insights and finally found the courage to live daily what I learned from Meg: speak the truth, laugh, be passionate, and most of all, live!

Through that difficult process, we didn’t just save our marriage, I reclaimed my life.

*   *   *

Seeing Meg again somehow brings everything full circle.

It’s early autumn and a perfect blue-sky day. We spend it eating delicious meals, soaking in natural hot springs, and talking about Meg’s current adventures. Later, we sit in silence under scented cedars and breathe the cool air by the river. As the day of laughter and conversation draws to a close, I ask her if she wants me to make good on the back rub offer I’d mentioned a few days before.

“Yeah!” she says, almost scoffing.

“I just want to assure you my intention is totally clean.” This is true.

“I know.”

I crouch behind her, resting my hands above her scapulas when I learn her secret. Though she doesn’t say a word, her body tells me: it’s been years since someone has touched her lovingly. Her shoulders feel like a tortoise shell, impenetrable.

“Do you tend to carry your tension in your shoulders?” I ask.

She exhales abruptly, “Yeah.”

“It feels like you’re carrying a lot.”

We barely talk, but for those fifteen minutes I get to give her something she’s actually willing to receive. Her body gradually loosens, but this tension seems at odds with the openness, playfulness, and spontaneity I see in her.

And it makes me wonder: do we ever really know anything about a person beyond what we project onto them? For all the time Meg and I spent together in Spain, and the countless hours I’ve thought about her since we were last together, I don’t really know who she is. I feel sad for her unspoken struggle. And more so because I’m not the one who can heal her. Maybe only she can.

When I’m done, her muscles are softer, though not fully released. As I rest my palms on her back behind her heart, a prayer comes to me so forcefully, tears spring to my eyes:

Bless this magnificent woman.

Bless her on her journey into the world.

Help her know how precious she is.

Amen.

In the silence, we both take a deep breath. For the first time since I met Meg, I am finally letting her go.

A close encounter of the growling kind

I’d only been back from Spain three days before I headed to the mountains to a place my heart calls home. When Camino-induced foot pain hobbled me, and I didn’t think I could walk another step, thoughts of Breitenbush Hot Springs renewed my flagging spirits. I planned this retreat long before leaving for Spain thinking a week in the woods would restore my body and hopefully, in keeping with their motto, bring my life back into balance.

Breitenbush was the first place where, many years before, I’d taken my first-ever retreat as a new Oregon transplant from the East coast. Here I learned the art of self-care, of listening to that tiny voice of guidance within, and the value of taking time out of life. Walking the labyrinth, soaking in the natural stone tubs, and laying prone in the sanctuary under towering, ancient cedars showed me how to surrender and let the earth and the Divine hold me up. This week was meant to be my reward for walking the Camino, sweet relaxation after so many miles of walking.

*    *    *

At daybreak, the distant roar of white water awakened me. A smile crept across my face from the pride of having braved a night in a tent alone. At dusk the evening before, a barred owl had visited me and hooted over my tent. Whoo-cooks-for-you? Whoo-cooks-for-you-all? he asked over and over. Weren’t owls an omen of wisdom and clear sight in darkness? I felt graced by his presence and protection, finding the courage to face my fear of the dark. Now the morning’s swirling birdsong called me out of my cozy bed. As I dressed, pulling on socks and pants evoked memories of my morning pilgrim ritual, and a powerful urge to keep walking surged through my bones.

Located high in the Cascade mountains, the center’s gorgeous trails surround the area and meander along a glacially-fed river. That’s where I’ll walk. I decided to do the whole seven-mile loop.

Despite the lush beauty of the wilderness, walking alone in the woods terrifies me. Oregon is home to cougars and bears. If this fact wasn’t enough for my overactive imagination, occasional reports of attacks and close calls fed the fear. I don’t like finding myself smack dab in the middle of the food chain.

Despite my clear intention relax and replenish for a week, the hike called me.  I’m stronger now, I thought. I walked across Spain, for crying out loud. I can do anything. Why the heck not face all of my fears? Certainly I couldn’t be that hard to be alone in the woods. Besides, I thought bravely, the likelihood of encountering a wild animal is so low. I’m sure it will be fine. 

Tightening the laces on my well-worn trail runners, I set out, feeling every bit the happy pilgrim-self again. The first mile was beautiful, a soft dirt trail winding along the river and its gurgling tributaries. Crossing log bridges, I followed the signage through stands of old growth cedar, fir, and hemlock. The high, broad canopy dappled the forest floor and ferns with polka dots of sunlight.

When the ascent began, everything changed. Away from the river, the air seemed drier and a spooky quiet settled in. Not even a breeze rustled the treetops. Wild rhododendrons formed a dense understory, absorbing sound and blocking any view of the forest around me. My contentment vanished. I grew anxious. To ward off any large creatures waiting around the next corner, I began to sing aloud.

Higher and higher, the trail narrowed and foliage reached into the path. As I passed, a branch snapped back and it me. I yelped in alarm. On edge, I heard a sound that stopped my heart in my chest: a growl. A bear. I was sure of it. Ice cold sweat covered my body. Oh, my God. I knew this was going to happen. I knew it. I’m going to die now. 

My heart thudded wildly. Do I keep walking? Hide? I couldn’t tell from what direction the sound had come, and I couldn’t see anything. Just keep walking. The adrenaline fueled me forward.

I gulped air as I tried to keep singing, “Birds flying high… You know how I feel…” Feeling Good was such an ironic song choice. Several agonizing minutes later, I still hadn’t seen the creature. Any creature.

I began to calm slightly, when I heard it again — only this time the growl had a clear source: a diesel engine revving in the distance.

“Ohmygod!” I laughed, exhaling with relief. Not a bear. The retreat center’s construction crew must have started their morning shift — and the big backhoe — and the sound traveled easily up the river canyon. I’d never been in danger.

When I had my wits about me again, I reflected on my “brush with death.” How often I take tiny bits of information and spin them into a wild worst case scenario, consequently raising my blood pressure sky high. This ability to invent something awful from nothing squelches my ability to be happy and present.

The walk I was on surrounded me with fifteen-foot rhododendrons blooming in frilly pink profusion, and all I could think about was how I might die between the teeth of whatever lurked behind them. I had totally missed the beauty.

The only thing keeping me from happiness are my thoughts.

Although I couldn’t will myself to cease feeling anxious, I spent the rest of this hike focusing on the beauty of small details around me. The forest floor opened up again and the trail became difficult, but I noticed sunlight shimmering through a cobweb, spied a plate-sized mushroom growing overhead, and heard the trickle of new-born streams.

The present is where life’s gifts wait to be discovered. The past has its allures and the future its uncertain opportunity, but that growl in the bushes might just be a blessing. This lesson wasn’t lost on me; I spent the rest of my week in the mountains soaking in the spring-fed hot tubs, rather than hiking the forest — just in case.

 

 

Peregrinas in the rain: Celebrating my second Camino anniversary

Sometimes in life you just have to go it alone. You have to dig deep and find resolve within yourself to face a daunting mountain. With the outcome uncertain, you battle the terrain and your own inner demons. At the top, you feel proud, courageous, and free. You’re a hero!

That was me in 2014, setting out to commemorate my one-year Caminoversary. Mired in depression, isolation, and inner struggles over the twelve months that followed my pilgrimage, I didn’t know if I would ever be happy again. But when I awoke on June 1—one year after watching the sun set with Meg in Finisterre—I took myself on a solo hike that involved conquering a literal mountain. This small-but-personally-heroic act set everything in my life back on course at long last. The accomplishment was mine alone.

Being strong isn’t everything, though. You probably know someone in your life (possibly you) who tries to do everything themselves. This habit can have tragic consequences if “being strong” prevents you from connecting with and experiencing support from other hearts. Sometimes the most radically courageous act you can take is to stop doing for yourself and to seek out the healing of friendship and the blessings of community.

That was my Caminoversary lesson this year.

*     *     *

When I thought about celebrating my two-year anniversary, I knew wanted to do the same hike as last year, a ritual on the beach, and to watch the sun set over the Pacific while munching on special snacks. This year, though, I envisioned having company. This inclination surprised me, but I followed it. I asked some Camino friends to join me for the day and got an enthusiastic response. Elaine and Carol are both past-peregrinas, and Nancy is walking this fall. I was delighted.

But here’s where things get a little wild: community has an energy and will all its own. I discovered (once again) that I can’t control everything. (How many times will life give me this lesson before I get it—and learn to trust it?) Nancy opened her beach home to us with an invitation to stay overnight (sparing us all an hour-plus drive home). This was a delightful twist, if not in my original vision. Soon there were carpool questions and food discussions and—as it got closer—weather concerns. Then I hurt my knee and couldn’t hike at all.

When we all convened on the actual day, thick dark clouds threatened as we talked about our options.

“We won’t be able to see a sunset because of the clouds,” said one.

“And the beach is really windy, so maybe we can skip that part,” said another. I started to worry that my intentions would get squashed before we’d set foot outside.

“Or you guys could do the hike without me and I could meet you at the beach later,” I suggested.

“No, we can’t leave you behind,” said another.

It was one of those messy, awkward what do I do? moments. In the past, I would have just gone along with the group—or subtly tried to push everyone toward my idea, attached and unyielding. But that was the old me. Instead I stepped up and risked being courageous with my friends:

“I agree that the weather’s iffy. It’s not about the hike so much or even watching the sunset,” I told them. “I think what’s most important to me is doing a ritual on the beach with a bonfire. Does that sound okay to you?”

Nods of assent followed.

“Could we do it this afternoon? That way, we can just stay in afterwards and relax together over dinner.”

“Sounds good to me.” And it was settled.

This may sound like a simple negotiation, an unexceptional conversation. In truth, I was facing a lifelong fear. Instead of being compliant or accommodating (and inwardly resentful later on), I’d struck a balance between authentic honesty and collaboration. Together, we found a solution that met the needs of all present. I was thrilled.

*     *     *

Decked out in billowing ponchos, we found a sheltered spot on the beach that was protected from the worst of the wind. My sore knee made me gimpy, but I encouraged my friends to take a walk by the surf while I started the bonfire. As it crackled, I wrote in my journal with sounds of ocean waves in the distance.

When my peregrina friends returned, we did a short ritual. Each of us wrote lists of things we wanted to release from our lives. After sharing aloud, we tossed the crumpled notes into the fire to symbolize their release and purification.

Then I shared the tradition of Bugles snacks, wine, and dark chocolate that started at my original Camino-ending ritual. From my bag I pulled out a nice red and, after pouring it into plastic cups, we toasted each other. I shared the words of the friendly German guy on Finisterre: “For to celebrate!”

As we sipped, laughed, and swapped stories, it began to rain in earnest. No one budged.

Are they really happy out here? Surely, they’re miserable and just humoring me. Instead of fretting, I simply asked. Their replies were unanimous.

“I’m fine!”

“The fire’s warm and I’m happy.”

“My poncho works great!”

So we stayed put, making a semicircle in the damp sand. I grinned, feeling deeply touched by their support of me and impressed by their contentment in the sloppy weather.

“Thanks for coming out here, you guys. You have no idea how much this means to me.”

Here I am, letting myself receive support and love. What a difference a year makes.

Many pilgrims use the expression, “the Camino provides,” to describe how the very thing you need appears on the Way in surprising and unexpected ways. What most people don’t realize—and I’m happy to share—is that the Camino keeps on giving long after you finish walking.

Last year, on my first Caminoversary, I learned to be my own hero.

This year, instead of being alone, I’m surrounded by inspiring heroes who are on the journey with me. And I with them.

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Thanks, ladies! Ultriea! ❤

The Camino continues to provide. ❤