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.

Exciting news! I’ve been podcasted!

In case you’re wondering, I DO have another reverse Camino post coming up soon. In the meantime, I’m tickled to share that I’m featured this month on The Camino Podcast!

Dave Whitson is one of the best interviewers I’ve ever met, and he asked great questions about my reverse Camino this spring. It was a total blast to meet with him and “talk Camino” and share some of the insights from this less-common pilgrimage.

In his intro, Dave laughed that the two topics in this podcast (my Camino and bed bugs) are not at all connected. To that, I messaged him saying that “completion” is about integrating the Camino’s lessons in real life, but “finishing” is about not bringing bedbugs home with you.

Enjoy listening… and let me know what you think!

Two weeks of walking backwards (so far)

I have to remember not to be cocky. I´ve gotten kind of smug about walking the Camino in reverse since I arrived here two weeks ago. A ¨sure, I´ve got this¨ kind of bravado.

Except that rain, impatience, hunger, pride, dogs, and fatigue all combined yesterday to break my sense of confidence in finding the Way.

There´s so much more story here… It will have to wait until I´m back. I´m fine though. It´s still raining, but the hill up to O Cebreiro becons tomorrow.

Buen Camino, amigos.

In one week. . .

My short training walk this morning was full of birdsong—robin, osprey, woodpecker, white crowned sparrow—and cool breezes in the morning sun. It will be like this on the Camino. 

20160419_065256

In one week!

 

20160419_073111

My head is full of pre-departure logistics and Benadryl-induced fog. Yesterday I was diagnosed with seasonal allergies (!), so I’m trying to figure out meds before I go.

The best part of the appointment was reporting to my awesome doc (the one who was nervous about me doing this trip) about how my health has improved since January.

“I’ve lost 18 pounds. I’ve been gluten- and dairy-free since January. I’m taking glucosamine, turmeric, and Vitamin D daily, just like you said. My knees feel great. My body feels strong. And I have you to thank.”

“Wow. I’m impressed! Good for you. Maybe ten percent of my patients take my advice—especially about gluten. Give yourself credit, though. You did the hard work.”

“Well, you were pretty honest about your concern. I got mad and was determined to prove you wrong,” I said with a laugh. “I’m so grateful you took that time with me. It made a difference.”

My doc smiled and wiped a little tear.

Her reaction made the indignity of bearing a butt cheek for a steroid shot a little more bearable.

“Normally I don’t go that extreme until we’ve exhausted natural and Western solutions, but since you’re flying in a week and your inner ear is swollen. . .”

“Thank you.” I have the best doc. It feels like such a collaboration.

It’s uncanny how when I left Spain three years ago, I also had stuffy ears, sore throat, and a cough. Now I’m going back with the same symptoms (but thank goodness no pneumonia!).

Blahbittyblah. I go on. Can you tell I’m excited? Thanks for reading!

What APOC is and why I joined it

What it is

American Pilgrims on the Camino is a US-wide organization that gathers pilgrims together at an annual conference and in local chapters throughout the country to connect around the Camino experience. They also train members to be a hospitalero in Spain. Similar country-specific confraternities exist all over the world, but ours it pretty cool.

Independent streak notwithstanding

I’m not normally a joiner. Politics make me want to crawl out of my skin. However, my entree to this group came from participating in APOC’s Facebook group. At over 12,oo0 members, it’s a vibrant group. When I was in the throes of my Camino blues, I was on that page every day, reading stories, answering questions, and posing some of my own.

I’ve benefited in so many ways from this online connection with other pilgrims. In the back of my mind has been the awareness of receiving all this support, connection, and help—at no cost.

I owe APOC a debt of gratitude

Last December I participated in the APOC Portlandia chapter’s Christmas potluck. There I met friendly people with interesting stories, humor, and soulfulness. It was a fantastic event to which I contributed nothing but a tarta de Santiago.

While preparing for my Camino, I requested two official credencials which APOC sent free of charge. Though they requested a donation for this service, I was not in a position to contribute at the time. Enter small dose of Catholic guilt. 😉

Finally, when the new-born Las Vegas chapter invited me to visit (with the REI connection just one degree of separation), I started to think: I should really join. This would be a good idea.

The cost versus value

If you’ve done the Camino (or are planning to), check out their resources and Facebook group. It’s so refreshing to meet pilgrims from all over the country, united in a love for this life-changing pilgrimage, no matter their political background or walk of life.

The membership fee for one person is $50, which (for me) is not chump change. Now that I’ve joined, I feel so good supporting the work of this organization. It’s one way to give back for the many gifts I’ve already received from them. (And yes, with a windfall tax refund I was able to throw in a few extra bucks for the credencials and postage.)

Catholic guilt? Absolved. 🙂 What a great way to start my next Camino–IN TWO WEEKS! (If you want to read updates, please subscribe!)

Are you an APOC member–or considered it? I’d love to hear about your experience.

Essential packing guide for the Camino de Santiago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d love to know what you think! ❤

Answering the call with a big fat NO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mt. Hebo Indian Trail — The Camino continues

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

IMG_3277

 

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

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

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

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