The weirdness of walking a backwards Camino

Everyone’s a comic.

“How are you going to see behind you as you walk?” (does a backwards-walking demonstration)

“Yeah, you’re going to wear a rear-view mirror on your hat, right?”

“You need one of those backup beepers like trucks have.”

Guffaw, guffaw. Yes, you’re hilarious.

Even if it’s getting a little old, I still remember my astonishment when an east-bound pilgrim approached me in 2013. I stood stock still to gape at her, bouche bée. She looked tired and weary, uttering only “Camino?” with raised eyebrows. I pointed the way, and she passed us with a nod.

I wanted to ask her. “You’re walking backwards?” Despite it being so obvious. “Why?!”

She got me thinking. I mean, isn’t Santiago the destination? Isn’t getting there the whole point? As if walking 500 miles wasn’t hard enough, why on earth would anyone willingly turn around and walk back?

My incredulity at encountering that brave Frenchwoman and the myriad jokes of my friends makes me think about the word backward. It’s a mild insult that implies slow, behind the times, and incorrect. Bass-ack-wards, my family says playfully.

It’s curious. If backwards is bad, is the past not valuable? Do we think what’s behind us is less important? It would seem if we’ve already “been there—done that,” the only way to live is to move forward. We have science and technology to thank for that inclination, but perhaps there’s also a cost.

Now that I’ll the one on the receiving end of stares and incredulous questions (and, according to another reverse pilgrim, the refrain “You’re going the wrong way!”), I’m rather excited! There I’ll be, causing countless pilgrims to question the point of walking to Santiago. Or even the point of striving at all. What if it’s all part a larger journey? What if where you are is perfect? Wouldn’t that be great!

That’s partly why I decided to make little question cards to give to pilgrims I meet. (Not everyone, of course. I can’t handle the pack weight!) I made a hundred or so with questions on them and quotes that make people think.

What is calling you?

I anticipate feeling so grateful for good directions, for meaningful connection, for inclusion in Camino families, I just wanted a little something to say thank you.

Making these cards was so fun and satisfying, I decided to make sets of them for friends and clients (here’s info if you want some too). And although my intention isn’t to make people think differently about doing things backwards, maybe the practice of being reflective can heal a tiny bit of what is happening in our world. Or explore the value of our past. In my small way, maybe I can use this pilgrimage to give back and contribute, not just walk. This feels really good to me.

So, as I’ve already said, I’m getting excited about this journey. I wonder who I’m going to meet. So many possibilities lie ahead of me—and perhaps behind me, too!

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.”

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!

Sock it to me: A post-Camino closet revelation

stripey socks
Used with permission CC

If you asked me where my floss was, I’d whip out its container in seconds flat. No matter how inconsequential, I knew every item’s location in my pack.

In fact, as a pilgrim, all my items had an assigned place within the pockets and pouches of my backpack. My blanket, for example, I rolled up tightly each morning and tucked close to my back, clothes in front. My clean socks and undies lived in one plastic bag in the bottom compartment, and the soon-to-be-washed ones in another. There’s nothing in the world so wonderful as a fresh pair of socks.

When you carry fewer than one hundred items on your back for seven weeks, you learn the value of your possessions. Though replaceable, each item was precious.

So maybe you can imagine how I felt when I stood before my closet, naked and clean from my first luxurious shower at home. The open doors revealed an abundance of colors, textures, and sheer options that overwhelmed my senses. Oh, my God! The choices!

“Socks!” I shouted out to Mary, who was in another part of the house. “I have socks! All kinds of them!”

“I know!” she shouted back, amused.

“And underwear! Tons of it! Oh, my God!”

In just under two months, I had completely forgotten how much clothing I owned. Although I’ve never been much of a clothes horse, I’d worn the same two outfits for weeks—which made my closet seem like a treasure trove. Running my fingers over the soft cottons, I marveled. I felt rich.

“And I don’t have to carry any of it! Woohoo!”

Moments later, it dawned on me that this abundance also had a cost: laundry—and the dreaded tedium of drying, folding, and putting it all away. “Every item you own requires energy and maintenance,” I’d said many times while teaching my organizing classes, but now it seemed a powerfully personal revelation.

Within a couple of days, I had tried on every item of clothing I owned, resolving to keep only things that felt good on my body. That session in front of my full-length mirror yielded two bulging black garbage bags of tops, sweaters, jeans, and shoes for donation to a local charity. I also brought two grocery bags full of nicer items to our local resale shop and exchanged them for cash.

It gave me an amazing feeling of lightness.

Though I would never get my closet down to the fifteen pounds I’d carried in my pack, finding balance between abundant choice and simple essentials was a way to honor one of my many Camino lessons.

Even after all that purging, I still kept all my socks.

The only thing to fear

“Your antagonist is fear,” she said.

She is one of the insightful people in my writing critique group of seven people, all bound to help give birth to our respective books.

For my submission last week, I turned in some preliminary writing that was more brainstorming and plotting than actual prose. I hoped for encouragement.

“And this,” she said, holding up my eight sheets of ideas, “looks like fear.”

I was shocked. This was not at all the kind of feedback I was expecting.

She looked me in the eye and said, “You just need to write. Stop thinking and start getting the words on the paper.”

I left the meeting feeling hurt, called out, and pissed off. I cried in the car ride home.

But after a few days of thinking, I realized she’s right.

*   *   *

Though I hardly ever listen to the radio, I turned it on yesterday and Sara Bareilles’ song Brave was on. Have you heard it? It’s amazing.

Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave . . .

And since your history of silence
Won’t do you any good,
Did you think it would?
Let your words be anything but empty
Why don’t you tell them the truth?

Okay, Universe! I get it!

Sheesh.

*  *  *

Reading about someone’s writing process can be as fun as watching them gaze at their own navel. I won’t belabor my point, but I will say this: Telling the truth is HARD. No less than three people have asked me in the past week, how do you do it? How can you write about real people you know? Don’t you worry?

YES!

I worry about making my partner look like a schmuck (which she most certainly isn’t). I worry that “Meg” will never speak to me again. My mom and aunt read this blog, as do some of my clients, my boss, and many friends—both from the Camino and at home. I worry about what they will think.

Despite the pressure I feel to say everything nicely and keep topics unoffensive, I have to be brave. I have to fight my lifelong urge to be tactful. I have to just tell it like it is.

Here’s why: I’ve met too many pilgrims who went into their journey hoping to be changed by it, and did not know how to sort out the experience afterward. Telling the truth is a gift to myself and—hopefully—to anyone who struggles after their Camino.

I’m taking a week to work on my writing and may not update the blog for a bit. I’ll be back with more tales that aspire to inspire.

*   *   *

It’s not ALL hard or scary, though!

In the last week, I’ve taken three different hikes with wonderful people. Getting outdoors is awesome nourishment for the heart and soul.

The first hike was a fourteen-miler on Eagle Creek with new Camino friends—including one of my favorite bloggers, Elissa Green from sometimesshetravels.com.

(c) elissa green
Used with permission — photo credit

I loved this photo Elissa took of my favorite hiking shoes (Brooks Cascadias) and a Checker Lily.

(c) elissa green 2
Used with permission — photo credit

Everyone talks about these cool falls with the tunnel carved into rock behind them. Elissa is pointing to me and Laura. (Don’t look at this one, Mom!)

(c) elissa green 3
Used with permission — photo credit

Then! Mary and I took a hike on Saturday in the Opal Creek area on a gorgeous day and saw tons of wildflowers. At one point we could hear the rushing sounds of three separate waterfalls. Amazing!

IMG_20150418_134049_381 (1)
Last, I met Carol and Nancy (more Camino friends) for a hike around Willamette Mission Park. We talked gear, albergues, and life. Such fun!
(c) carol routh

I counted—that’s about 23 miles in one week. Yay!

Let’s get out there be brave together!

Update 1: Taking myself less seriously

Soul-searching is a good and valid endeavor, but so is lightening up. This month, in honor of my birthday, I’m giving myself new challenge—a mini-Camino—to practice taking myself less seriously.

Day 1: Say “Well, everyone needs a hobby—including my brain.”

Referring to my obsessive inner dialog as a “hobby” tickled my funny bone. I was in the middle of mildly complaining about a habit of my partner’s. When I noticed it, I said aloud, “Oh, yeah! This is my brain’s hobby—getting annoyed at stupid stuff! Forget what I said. You’re all good.” And I honestly felt better and amused!

Continue reading “Update 1: Taking myself less seriously”

Day 44: Diving into the water and the luminous shell – Finisterre (part 2)

Long before I left Oregon to walk across Spain, even before I had purchased airfare, I had decided I would sing a song called Farthest Shore when at last I stood at end of the world – Finisterre – the literal (or at least historical) western-most beach in Europe.

I’ve referenced David Wilcox’s music on my blog before, but if you haven’t listened to this song, consider it my Camino anthem. For me it carries a potent message about what’s essential in life and what can be safely (if sometimes painfully) left behind.

Continue reading “Day 44: Diving into the water and the luminous shell – Finisterre (part 2)”