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.

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.

Yosmar’s Story: Tastes of the Camino

Yosmar is a pilgrim of life. Like me, she was in the middle of seeking something better when she decided to walk the Camino de Santiago. Afterward, she sought a way to bring this meaningful experience to the world.

How do we live a more inspired, more Camino-like life every day? As a fellow writer and seeker, I’m delighted to share her story. Yosmar’s story shows how she ultimately chose to bring delight and deliciousness to the world.

Tastes of the Camino… The Camino’s gift to me

Yosmar Martinez

Like many who embark on the Camino, I was in a very dark phase of my life prior to experiencing the Camino. For almost ten years, I had been very unhappy in my career, which led me to being unhappy in my life. At times, I thought my unhappiness was job-specific…. If I could get a job where I was paid more, I would be happier… If I didn’t have a neurotic or spineless boss, I would enjoy what I was doing…  If I didn’t have to commute an hour each way, I wouldn’t be so exhausted at the end of the week and my quality of life would be so much better… You name it…

If there was an “if,” it was something I had pondered on and believed would make me happier.  So as many do, I switched jobs a few times to try to address some of those “if’s.” Each time, the initial ecstasy of the new opportunity would fade within months and I would be back to the same place.  

I also took sometime to go to culinary school and deep down I knew I had to do something with food. But I wasn’t sure what.  I started a specialty food business but I was not meeting my financials goals within the timeframe I had allotted. I taught cooking classes on a part time basis. I loved teaching as it really allowed me to share my passion about food with others. But I had a hard time making ends meet just teaching.  So I always kept my corporate career. It was my safety net and yet, it was also a huge factor in my unhappiness.

The two years right before that first Camino in 2011 were particular tough. During the great recession, my position was eliminated and the job market shrunk.  \So I decided to get into real estate. I was truly excited about this new career path but it was tough being that the market was in the dumpster.

The constant struggling in a down market and the ongoing unhappiness really wore me down. And that is when I decided to walk the Camino, despite having all sorts of reservations… Could I physically walk 500 miles? Was the Camino for me, being the non-religious, non-spiritual person that I was? Would I even enjoy myself?

After returning from my first Camino, like many, I was able to see the positive impact that the Camino had on me. It wasn’t a sudden or dramatic change. But for one, I reacted to problems a bit more calmly… I also didn’t need material things as much. It also seemed to give me the courage to at least start writing a cookbook, something I had always wanted to do but was afraid of.

You see… during those 10 years of ongoing dissatisfaction and unhappiness, I had lost my self-confidence and the ability to belief in my ideas. But somehow, after arriving in Santiago, I was compelled to write a book about the foods of the Camino. So I started working on my Camino cookbook… developing recipes and writing. I knew I would enjoy the recipe development because after all I love everything about food! But I didn’t consider myself a writer so I was somewhat fearful of that part of the book.  

To my surprise, I found the writing portion extremely therapeutic.  It was almost as the world around me didn’t exist while I was writing and therefore, nothing could bring me down. While I was enjoying myself, deep down, I still was unsure if this book would ever see the light of day. Because of my work and travel commitments, it took about three years to complete the manuscript.  

It was only when the manuscript was done that I started to believe that there would actually be a real book. I decided to self-publish and had to learn a “boatload of new”… food photography, food styling, book design, indexing, printing, website development, how to open an LLC, sales tax, etc. But somehow overcoming this “boatload of new” gave me back my self-confidence… In essence, the Camino and this cookbook, Tastes of the Camino, put me on a positive path that I had been searching for a very long time.  And when I became more positive, things just started falling into place.

What this positive path will bring me is yet to be known. It might be more books … It might be something else food related… It might be something totally unrelated that I can’t even fathom! Right now, I am not too concerned because I am enjoying this gift the Camino has given me. I put emphasis on the word “enjoying” because I feel that society puts too much emphasis on being happy rather than enjoying happiness. And sometimes we are so desperately in search of this ultimate state of mind/state of mind called happiness that we don’t see it in our day to day and thus, we forget to enjoy it. Without having walked the Camino and written Tastes of the Camino, I am unsure I would have ever come to this realization.

For more information on Tastes of the Camino, please visit www.whiskandspatula.com/books.

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

Blessed are you, pilgrim

All of us stand in a line under the eaves of this outdoor pavilion—some wearing backpacks, others excited expressions—anticipating our imminent departure on pilgrimage.

We face a row of smiling pilgrims holding laminated sheets of paper.

Blessed are you, pilgrim, if you find that the Camino opens your eyes to the unseen.

Kind faces and clear voices read these benedictions aloud for all to hear.

Blessed are you, pilgrim, if your backpack empties of things, as your heart doesn’t know how to fit so many emotions.

Blessed are you, pilgrim, if you discover that a step backwards to help another is more valuable than a hundred forward without awareness of those at your side.

Blessed are you, pilgrim, when you have no words to give thanks for all the wonders in every nook of the Camino.

Blessed are you, pilgrim, if you search for the truth and make of your Camino a life, and of your life a Camino. 

Blessed are you, pilgrim, because you have discovered that the true Camino begins at its end.

Here, in the middle of a Portland park, we call to the Divine who is always in our midst and bless each other. This is holy ground. Every step is. Nancy grins at me.

And, then a woman presents the box of scallop shells tied with red cords.

One by one, our host calls our names. I step forward.

Jennifer, receive this scallop shell, the badge of the pilgrim, that all may recognize you as a pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela.

I accept the shell and shake his hand. My eyes mist.

BUEN CAMINO!

The whole company cheers, and I grin and fight tears. This. This moment means everything. I’ve been commissioned, blessed, and sent. Now the only thing to do is walk.

(Eight days to go!)

Walking, talking, and icing on my Camino cake

Seventeen days!

This week, Carol (my first Camino angel back in 2012) came down from Portland for a walk and catch-up visit. Together, we did 10.7 miles around north Salem and explored a whole agricultural area where I’d never been before!

I confess, I was fine up to about six miles and then started getting crabby, sore, and tired. Thank goodness for interesting, chatty friends whose natural energy keeps me going. ❤

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And! News!

Finally! All the details have been hashed out so I can share with you some exciting Camino developments!

Back in December, I mentioned that it was very, very likely I would be joined by Muriel—the sage and funny French librarian I met on my first Camino—for the last part of my Camino.

Now it’s confirmed and I’m squee-cited! PLUS, an additional exciting thing has developed.

Marisela, the city-savvy girl from Bogotá I met on my very first day in Saint Jean Pied de Port, is flying to Europe from Colombia to meet us! NO WAY! Yes, way!!

Peregrina reunion

The three of us will reunite in Pamplona and then take our time crossing back over the Pyrenees together. Muriel and Marisela (plus Katrin, another peregrina) were a little Camino family in 2013. After weeks of walking solo this year, I can only imagine how wonderful it will be to see these two beautiful, beloved faces again after three years apart.

Marisela and I are especially excited to cross the Pyrenees via the higher, Napoleon route since it was closed due to snow the day we left SJPP. The Valcarlos route was lovely, but we’re eager to see the shrine to Mary and have the whole experience.

Best of all, we already have a confirmed reservation at Orisson (the only place to stay on top of the hill), and two days at Beilari, where Marisela and I first met.

As if I needed more reasons to be excited, I already know this peregrina reunion will be the icing on my Camino cake!

Also!

Right out of thin air, I’ve got two Camino speaking gigs on the calendar for fall!

In October, I’ve been invited by the Las Vegas REI to give a presentation about my Camino experiences and meet up with their newly-hatched APOC group. I’m also invited to give a Camino talk at Salem Summit Company this September in Salem, OR.

Group events like these are one one my vary favorite things to do. When the dates are firmed up, I’ll be sure to post them here. I’m super jazzed!

Now, if I could just find enough time to walk daily. It’s coming up SO fast!

Flight screwups and glorious training hikes!

Getting to the Camino

This morning, I sat down to confirm all my Camino transportation details and discovered a mistake in my flight schedule. My mistake.

My original plan was to:

  1. fly to Dublin on a red-eye
  2. fly to Santiago the same day
  3. stay in town that night to rest up
  4. then take a bus to Finisterre in the morning

Well! Precise scheduling details like this are not my strong suit. I transposed a date on my spreadsheet and gummed up this tidy little plan.

So now I will:

  1. fly to Dublin overnight on that same red-eye
  2. stay in Dublin that night at a hotel
  3. Take my flight to Santiago the next day
  4. and hope to catch an evening a bus to Finisterre or Cee

Even though the tidiness is gone (and a degree of uncertainty and the need for hope inserted), it’s not that big a deal. My ego is just a tad bruised. I want to spend as little time getting there so I can be there.

In other news!

Training Hike #8

Distance: 7.2 mi
Elevation gain/loss: 1000 ft.
Pack weight: 10lbs

Martha is a new Camino friend I met back in December when I attended the Portland APOC Christmas potluck. She met me at Silver Falls State Park for a hike despite mud, rain, and wind. It’s a beautiful place in any kind of weather!

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We hiked for several hours and even with the steep elevation gain and loss, my knees didn’t hurt or swell at all! Woohoo!

We had Camino-quality conversations too. My favorite part about walking is the freedom and spaciousness to discuss whatever topics come to mind, to listen, to share deeply from the heart. I want to remember that conversations like these aren’t just a Camino thing. They come from making a choice to show up authentically and vulnerably with others anywhere.

Training Hike #9

Distance: 8.2 mi
Elevation gain/loss: 1240 ft.
Pack weight: 12lbs

Then! Last weekend, I got to stay with my friend Nancy. You remember her, right? She is my right-hand training buddy and Camino soul sister who walked the Way last fall.

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When Nancy was preparing and training last year, I was living vicariously (and a little enviously) through her. Now that I’m getting ready, she confesses to the same.

Jen and Nancy

We agreed to do a hard hike and chose Cascade Head on the Oregon coast. I love this hike. In terms of geology, it’s a lot like Finisterre—a tall, narrow landmass that juts out into the ocean—only with more trees. The elevation gain is 1,200 feet up and back down again. And the views? Stunning.

Cascade Head

Except when you ascend into the clouds.

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At the top, we met a tall, hip-looking woman and talked together for a few moments. Then she disappeared into the mist.

Nancy and I had decided to be clever by leaving one car at a different trailhead so we could walk just one way, Camino-like. What we didn’t plan for was the scary trail closure sign (threatening a $5000 fine and 6 months in jail) that met us as we proceeded into the woods toward my car.

We agonized, really. We’re both first-born big sisters and good girls with a strong sense of responsibility.

“We should probably go back the way we came,” Nancy said.

“But I really want to have our adventure!” I whined.

“Me too!”

We scrutinized the sign: TRAIL CLOSED TO ALL FOOT, BIKE, AND MOTOR TRAFFIC. When I’d parked my car, a similar sign specified only a single trail to avoid. I’d thought we were in the clear. Now doubt set in.

“I know this is to protect a fragile butterfly species,” I said. “I guess we should do the right thing.”

“Yeah. We should.”

On the way back down the hill, the tall lady passed us.

“Where did you go after we talked with you?” I asked.

“Oh, I walked down the road a way.”

“Did you see the sign?” Nancy asked.

“Oh, yeah. I didn’t think it applied to me,” she said pragmatically. She was right. It was only the side trail we needed to avoid.

Nancy burst out laughing, “The two good little Catholic girls followed the rules.”

“And this Jewish girl ignored them!” We all laughed.

For me, the lesson is to not make decisions from a place of fear. Choose because of love, because of passion, because of joy. Don’t step on butterflies, of course, but don’t diminish your truth and your calling out of fear.

There’s a big difference between fear and actual danger.

Getting ready!

These two hikes really tested my body and allowed me to discover what it’s capable of doing despite the diagnosis. I’ve felt a little sore, but my knees felt terrific. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

I’m getting really, really, REALLY excited for Spain.

What’s the point of pilgrimage? No, really.

Photo credit

Lately, as I wake in the morning, I can feel the realization dawn over my body like a wave of prickles cascading from head to toes: Jesus. Seven weeks. In seven weeks, I’ll be in Spain. In seven weeks, I’ll be walking every day.

I haven’t been blogging because I’m feeling pretty discouraged at the moment. Not with my body or my training, but with what’s happening in my country. On one hand, I want to stay informed. On the other, everything I see about the presidential race shocks me, appalls me, and scares me. What are we doing? Most candidates are sleeping with Big Money (or want to) and another is talking about the size of his sexual organ. What on earth is happening?

It feels as though the very fabric of this country–one with so many kind and generous souls–is being stretched and torn. Is it race? Is it sexuality? Gender? A growing millennial generation with wholly different values than the old, dying guard? I have no answers, but a growing dread of September elections.

With all of this going on, I’m deeply in doubt about the usefulness and relevance of pilgrimage in a modern, connected age. What’s the point of unplugging and walking? Why spend all that money, time, and energy? What does it accomplish, and how does it solve anything?

I am having a dark night of the soul. It’s not permanent, but it is real: Part of me truly and earnestly does not want to walk another five hundred miles. It feels like such an interruption of my life that, in many ways, I haven’t learned to live since my Camino three years ago. Yes, despite the fact that I’ve assented to this calling, I am not thrilled with it. I’m resisting it still because I don’t see the point.

Maybe that’s the way a calling works. A yes is required before anything will be revealed about the journey or its purpose. The messages I heard over a year ago were clear and unequivocal, “You will walk again. You will return to the beginning.”

I assented. I will go.

It’s then I remember that the Camino is life. There is nothing we can do that isn’t part of the journey. I can walk in Spain, or I can walk through my own neighborhood. I can open my heart to other pilgrims as we share a meal, or I can open my heart to the person behind me in the coffee drive through or give a five bucks and banana to the homeless guy with the cardboard sign. It’s all part of the same journey. There is nothing outside it. Everything is included.

This helps me remember that my country is on its own journey—of which I am a part. We are called to create a more perfect union. That is our purpose. We said yes to this over two hundred years ago, but we don’t know where that will lead. Our country’s journey is a camino.

So with all of this swirling around in my mind this morning, I walked into the grocery store to pick up a few things, and I received another message. A confirmation. A benediction: The song playing on the PA system was a Camino anthem, “I will walk five hundred miles, and I will walk five hundred more…”

I get it. This path I walk is blessed. All our paths are.

Buen camino, peregrinos. Keep walking.