What’s in my shopping bag for the Camino

Certainty

Scallop shells are showing up in unexpected places. Everything is clicking. And then another song came tonight as I was putting away the dinner dishes.

Kyrie eleison down the road that I must travel
Kyrie eleison through the darkness of the night
Kyrie eleison where I’m going will you follow
Kyrie eleison on a highway in the light

This song by Mr. Mister was popular when I was in middle school, but I haven’t thought about it much since then. (That’s how I know it’s one of those messenger songs.)

Lord, have mercy on this road that I must travel.

Give it a listen. Yes, the band is 80’s electronica, but the chorus harmonies nail it. A plea, a prayer, a belief in the sacredness of walking your path. A wind reaches in to where we cannot hide and sets us on the road.

Packing my bags (almost)

That song came after a day of running errands to get my last bits of gear. Although I’m mostly reusing everything that went to Spain the last time, thanks to Amazon and several local businesses, I’m literally ready to pack my bag.

Here’s my haul:

Camino gear purchases

Here’s a full list of items (feel free to ask about them in the comments):

  • shoe inserts for arch support
  • a fleece neck gaiter which triples as a night-time mask and daytime hat
  • probiotic that doesn’t need refrigeration
  • hair ties
  • sunblock with no bad nasties in it
  • Mack’s ear plugs — I’m bringing these in addition to my trusty Hearoes
  • a compass/thermometer (my other one broke)
  • plastic S-hooks for keeping clothes dry in the shower
  • copy of my eyeglass prescription
  • two pair of lightweight Injinji toe socks
  • a new water bottle
  • zip quart bags
  • spray-on waterproofing for my sun hat
  • my new Camino guidebook
  • brand-new blank journal (AKA my camera, address book, planner, and journey-memory recorder)
  • a fanny pack

This is literally all the extra gear I needed. Next week I’ll be packing up my bag and test driving it for weight.

While I was out, I also got a short haircut that will be easy to take care of in Spain.

2016-04-01 16.06.02

Feeling groovy

Despite gaining all these items, I’m happy to report that I’ve lost sixteen pounds since I bought my tickets last fall. Though I haven’t measured, I’ve lost a lot in inches. Some of my clothes are looking a little baggy. I feel terrific. If I eat wheat, however, I feel terrible–my knee aches for days after. So I’ll keep avoiding it and loving this new skin I’m in.

TWENTY FIVE DAYS TO GO!! SQUEEE!!

Serendipity, songs, and pre-Camino angels

I knew my blue mood wasn’t permanent

Ever since my Camino, I’ve come to believe that invisible spirits look out for me, guide me, support my path. Yours too. Although my logical side wants to deny this, sometimes the coincidences are too numerous to ignore.

The key is being open. It’s about remaining unattached to How Things Will Turn Out. A few days ago, I surrendered the need to know.

Not surprisingly, signs started showing up. My blue mood lifted. Hope and excitement began bubbling up in its place. By doing my part and letting go, I started hearing the messages that were there all along.

Song angels

When I was on the Camino, song angels would come and whisper lyrics of a long-forgotten melody into my ears. Receiving these songs was a profound spiritual experience. When Desperado came to me, for example, I remembered to come down from my fences and open the gate of my heart. Each song that arrived carried with it a message my soul needed to hear.

Styx and Sparks

Now they’re showing up before I leave. One song came in the grocery store last week. Two days ago, it was Show Me the Way by Styx—a tune I haven’t heard in years. Its message of surrender and trust reminded me not to worry and to trust that the Way is there for me to find.

Show me the way, show me the way
Take me tonight to the river
And wash my illusions away
Please, show me the way

The next day, a more contemporary song—One Step at a Time by Jordin Sparks—came to me like a silver thread. The drum beats are actual footsteps, and its message is about taking your time, making one choice, taking one breath, and focusing on what you can do.

When you can’t wait any longer
But there’s no end in sight
It’s your faith that makes you stronger
The only way we get there
Is one step at a time

I needed to hear these words. We all do.

People angels

The Divine uses people as messengers too.

Three songs and then a day later, dear Meg, the original Camino archangel, called me out of the blue.

As we caught up, it became clear that both Meg and I are walking at life’s edges, challenged by conflicting choices. We talked about the difference between thinking and knowing. How to make everything more complicated with cruel self-judgment. How hard it is to really change your life.

We also reminisced about our Camino when the topic of gear came up. Meg told me about a sweet woman she met who was carrying a third of her own weight on her back. When Meg eventually helped lighten this woman’s load, she revealed she was carrying no fewer than a half-dozen knives from well-meaning friends.

Meg contagious laughter got me going. “Why would anyone need six knives?” she asked.

“It’s not like the Camino is in the wilderness!” I said. “No hacksaw necessary!”

Meg cracked up. “Right! Do you even really need one? I mean, if you have cheese, you can just bite some off with your teeth! And the lightweight sporks, Jen! What the fuck?”

Our laughter was cathartic.

You can pack your bag full for every contingency, and it will physically hurt you—even end your Camino early. In the same way, you can fill your mind with every worry, doubt, and fear—and ruin a perfectly lovely walk. That mental mess makes you miss the blessings, the serendipity, and life-changing messages.

Wake up

As we discussed Meg’s current big decision, I suggested the best way to get the outcome she’s looking for is to get really clear about what she wants.

“I have to disagree,” she said, surprising me. “I fuck up everything I try to influence. I really think the point is to let go of control.”

As a lifelong control freak, this got my attention.

She continued, “Someone asked me once why I should set the bar myself, when I have no idea how happy I’m capable of being. If you try to control everything, you limit the outcomes of what’s possible. Your ideas of what you can create are too small, too limited. Let go instead and see what shows up. It could be even better than you can imagine.”

Wow. Just whack that nail on its shiny little head.

Stay open and let go

These words, from exactly the right person, were just what I needed to hear. Her humor lightened my worries, and our conversation reminded me to open my heart to the wonder and miracles everywhere.

When we were just about to hang up, she said, “If I don’t talk to you before you go, have an amazing time, Jen. Don’t pack too much.”

“In more ways than one, right?” We both laughed.

“Yeah,” she said. “Try to keep it to just one knife.”

A daunting diagnosis: Can I walk the Camino?

“Well, the first thing you’ll want to do is thank you parents for passing this on to you,” my doctor smiled ironically. “Osteoarthritis is usually inherited.”

“I’ll be sure to show them some gratitude,” I grinned back.

“Now, I don’t mean to sound negative,” she continued. “I know you like hiking, but I think you’re going to need to find a new hobby. Your knee just can’t take it.”

*   *   *

A few months ago, I lay in the reverberating MRI chamber wondering what the heck was wrong with my knee. A squishy feeling persisted any time I walked or hiked. Sometimes it ached a bit, so I finally got it checked out. The results came today: arthritis. At forty-two.

This wouldn’t normally be a big deal for this world-class couch potato. I could merely have used the diagnosis as an excuse to take my laziness to the next level.

But, given my recent announcement, these times are anything but “normal.” I’m planning to walk the Camino de Santiago again in nine months! That fact alone would be concerning, but the truth is hiking has become a lot more to me than what my doc called a hobby. Being out in nature is what got my life back on track after falling apart post-Camino. Hiking is what saved me from the most paralyzing depression of my life. Later, when I was whole again, it’s what saved my relationship with Mary. Simply put, hiking is what I do to encounter the Divine and restore my soul.

For this reason and many others, I can’t stop walking. I simply won’t.

“As you know, I walked across Spain two years ago,” I reminded my doc. “I’m planning to go back again next spring and do at least part of it again.”

“Well…” she started slowly, a cautious look crossing her face. “In that case, we need to focus on strengthening the weaker muscles in your quads and loosening your hamstrings. I also have some supplements I want you to start on that can help reduce swelling and support the cartilage.”

Her thought is if these interventions don’t help with my pain and swelling by December, we’ll explore a more aggressive strategy to help the knees become healthier so I can still walk in spring.

I never imagined this — of all things. To be told that I’m physically incapable of walking — or that doing so would be unwise. The craziest part about today’s revelation is that, up until now, I’ve been feeling scared, resistant, and mildly apathetic about the call to walk the Camino again. I haven’t exactly been jumping for joy about going. But now there’s this hurdle. There’s someone looking over my lab reports evaluating whether I should go. I want to spit nails. Find another hobby, my ass!

This new information is changing my formerly-reluctant assent into a defiant just-try-and-stop-me! Something deep within is rising to the challenge.

*   *   *

My mindset is pumped, but the reality of what I’ll have to do to prepare is daunting. I’m one of those excitable types who starts out all gung-ho about a project and then rapidly loses steam — twenty-four hours is a generous window. I have to do exercises every day: Wii balance board games, leg extensions, rolling on a foam thing to stretch my hamstrings (painful!), and a little move I call the stork leg. Daily. Twice daily for extra credit. How on earth will I find the resolve to do this for nine months?

Taking the supplements diligently will be easy enough with breakfast, but it’s the final challenge that fills me with undeniable dread: I have to lose weight. If I’m honest, I need to lose at least forty pounds (and keep it off) to take the strain off my knee. Losing weight takes diligence I do not inherently possess. Oh, that my arms and legs and torso were like Legos, and I could just pull off the bits I don’t need, piece by piece.

Oh, that I didn’t medicate every shift in my mood with sugar, fats, and carbs. Losing weight might be easy if it were just about my meals, but what keeps me overweight is what I eat in secret, in between meals, when no one is watching. Me and food are thick as thieves.

The arthritis was coming, one way or the other. What I didn’t know was saying yes to this Camino meant facing the inherited, intertwined issues of food and feelings. I can curse my fate or deny it, but there that wound is still there, waiting for me to heal it. Further proof, as if I needed any, that the Camino gives you what you need.

So, dear reader, here I am. As you know, I’m embarking on a physical journey in Spain nine months from now. To prepare for that walk, I begin another journey now toward healing and getting healthy in unexpected, potentially-transformational ways. I am equal parts daunted and eager, but one thing is for certain: I’m keeping my hobby.

Want to know why I’m doing the Camino in reverse — and how you can help? Read on!

Announcing my next journey

After two years of thinking that walking the Camino de Santiago once should be enough for anyone for a lifetime . . . After six months (at least) of actively resisting a clear call to return, I’m finally saying aloud (or writing, if you want to be literal) it’s going to happen, God willing.

When I first heard the call, it was a tiny little whisper that said, Go back.

“Nonono!” My inner control freak raged. “No! Not doing it!”

I’ve been chewing on it ever since. Mostly, I’ve thought a lot about ancient pilgrims who, without the aid of modern travel, got to Santiago (or even earlier, Finisterre), spent a few days or weeks celebrating, then turned around to start walking home again. This walk back was an entirely separate journey! Even the Iliad has the Odyssey — the story of return.

After sitting in discernment (okay, actively arguing with Whoever Does The Calling), I began to realize that my next walk isn’t to repeat the journey in the same order. I’m not going back to Saint Jean Pied de Port. My call is to begin at the end and walk to the beginning. I hope to start in Finisterre and then walk back — to Santiago at least, but maybe farther — as far as I need to go.

The reason why I want to answer this call is the symmetry of it. “To arrive where we started,” as T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “and know the place for the first time.” Just as ancient pilgrims did, I’m intrigued by the possibility of revisiting so many powerful places of personal significance to me. Even though I’ve had closure on the intense feelings and have integrated many experiences the Camino brought up, I want to stand on the piece of earth where I woke up. I want to walk that sacred ground again, remember, and resolve on a very deep level to keep being the person I discovered there.

My resistance has been about time and money, of course, and conflicting travel desires. It’s also about control and not trusting the process. I’ve not written about it until now because of the fear it brings up. I didn’t want to say anything until I said Yes. Unlike the first journey, the logistics of this call are about walking against the stream, very likely alone, and with much less clear direction (no yellow arrows!). After the camaraderie of my Camino, this sounds like a very lonely experience. My mind can be my worst enemy out there all alone.

On the other hand, just like my first Camino, answering the call gave me exactly what I needed. I received many more gifts than I could ever have imagined. I don’t know how many times the Divine needs to bonk me on the head with this lesson, but eventually I’d like to believe with all my heart that answering with an unhesitating YES will give me exactly what I need to grow and evolve. In the never-ending duel between trust and control, I want to choose trust.

So here I go. Again. I’m preparing to walk the Camino.

Can I get a witness?

Want to know more about why I’m doing the Camino in reverse — and how you can help? Read on!

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.