A day of emotions, imaginary friends, and a heartwarming reunion
Total distance on foot: 10.7 mi / 17.2km
Towns traveled through: Hospital
This day in 2013: Day 43
I’m going to be frank: it’s emotional to be back here. One minute I’m okay, the next moment I’m in tears. Unsettled. Open. For someone with a lifetime of practice being “fine” (or at least acting that way), these unpredictable waves of emotion are both cathartic and unnerving.
Taped to today’s journal page is a note from my 13-year-old niece,
“It doesn’t matter how slow you go as long as you don’t stop.”
Seeing this wise message in her fanciful, multi-colored handwriting makes me teary. Walking backwards is slow. Arrows are confusing. Backtracking burns up minutes and miles. People stopping to question my motives jars me. It hardly seems linear.
The same holds true for inner journeys. Letting go and acceptance are astoundingly slow-going work. Have you ever noticed how, after committing to letting go of a habit or a person, you catch yourself grasping again with white-knuckled fingers, trying squeeze out what it can never provide? Oh, we say, taking a deep breath. I can let this go. And we choose to release it again… and grasp again… and release again… until something truly shifts.
This work is slow, but it’s the process. And so important not to stop.
* * *
My primary challenge of the day is to make the steep, three-mile climb outside of Cee to a point almost nine hundred feet above me. I’ve been dreading it. Anticipation of this hill has kept me awake at night—sweating and anxious in a dark cocoon of blankets—for weeks.
Out in the cold morning air, now the sun rises over my right shoulder. A mile in, I’m gasping for breath from the exertion, but keeping at it. My heavy breathing turns into ragged sobs, and I don’t stop. I just give in to the waves of emotion as I continue to climb.
Meg. She was here with me three years ago. The landmarks we once passed and the memories approach then fall behind me, one at a time. Thank you. Somehow as I walk, the way in which my soul had entwined with hers is slowly untwisting.
* * *
At the top, the path is a gravel track through high, open fields of gorse and newly-planted young eucalyptus trees. For the next five hours, there isn’t a single café, farm, or home. Although this isolation is what I need, it’s tinged with nerves. I’m still not confident about finding my way. As I walk, I hear only the wind and the sound of my breathing.
The view from here is stunning, and I pause periodically to look back at the Atlantic. When Meg and I were here last, we mistook distant, heavy clouds for another line of mountains. Now I can see all the way to the tiny lighthouse in Finisterre. Several more times, I glance back before the view disappears for good.
The sense of Meg being with me is at times palpable. I miss you, I say into the air as the tears flow again. Thank you. Thank you for walking with me and helping me discover how happy I could be. Thank you for witnessing and accepting me for who I really am.
Finally, I tell her the rest of the story.
All my life, I’ve tried to stay as small as possible and not make waves… but this meant living a divided life. People only knew the self I showed the world, but not the authentic person I feared others would find unacceptable. But, Meg, you taught me that I didn’t have to be divided. You with your quick wit and sarcasm and potty mouth. You just didn’t care what anyone thought of you… and I’ve always cared too much. You made me laugh and loosen up. God, it was so fun to laugh with you.
I’m talking out loud, telling her how things unfolded after we parted and about returning to my less-than-stellar life. My inner judge wants me to shut the hell up, not look like a crazy person. Talking out loud! After all these years, the truth just has to be spoken, even if Meg’s not really here and God is my only witness.
“Imagination and fantasy are both beautiful things,” I say. “Provided they’re not used to escape from living in the physical world. But that is actually what happened for me. I lost myself in fantasies about being with you and in the process lost touch with reality. It was a really dark time. And it took a really long time to find my way again.”
“What I know now is that it was never your job to save me. It would have been a disaster if we’d been together. I believe you showed up to teach me. But I was obsessed with being with you because I wanted to be like you. It took forever for me to finally let go and learn to live with same authenticity I admire so much in you.”
The morning’s first pilgrim appears ahead at a bend in the path. I drop my gesticulating arms and try to look sane. As he passes, his face looks surprised, but he wishes me a buen Camino. As soon as he is out of earshot, I continue talking.
It takes hours to say what happened for me and why everything unfolded the way it did.
“Today, I am just grateful. I have never felt so messed up in the head as I did after the Camino, but it was a turning point in my forty-year existence. Slowly, painfully, I learned how to live an undivided life.”
Now the whole story has been told aloud. Maybe I’ve said it for myself… to the Meg who is actually me.
“Thank you, Meg.”
Thank yourself. I grin. What I admire in her is a part of me.
Thank you, self… For going so far out of your comfort zone in order to be truly happy. Thank you for ignoring advice to just go back to sleep. Thank you for hanging in there through the darkness and for choosing to live. Thank you for coming back here to Spain. It is so beautiful here.
* * *
It really is. It’s quiet and woodsy, and the warm sun fills my senses. I walk in silence now—alive and buzzing and cleansed. My thoughts are almost nonexistent. My body like a machine, just taking step after satisfying step.
Eventually, I enter the first village of the day after hours of forest paths. Up along a cobbled, corridor-like street, the cool, deep afternoon shadows draw my eyes to the blue sky. Overhead, I notice an active beehive in the stone wall of a home. Honeybees are a good omen for me.
Here’s where I’ll stay tonight.
* * *
Sliding my passport and credencial across the bar for inspection and a stamp, the hospitalera tells me the price for the night and about the pilgrim menu for dinner.
I recognize her face. “I was here three years ago,” I say in Spanish. “You and your friend taught me how to say ‘thank you very much’ in Galician.”
She raises her eyebrows and says, “I did?”
“Yes, I still remember. It’s ‘moitas grazas‘.”
Crinkles form at the corners of her expressive eyes as her face cracks into a smile. “Moitas grazas!” she parrots back. “You remembered! And you returned here again!”
“Yes, I remember your hospitality very well and the fun you have here. This albergue has a special place in my heart.”
She puts down the stamp, walks around the bar, and embraces me warmly, planting a kiss on each cheek. “You remembered!” How could I not? She and her friend repeated ‘moitas grazas‘ with enthusiasm and emphatic hand gestures until Meg and I got the pronunciation just right. I vividly remember the four of us sharing this warm exchange and laughter that morning.
The life of a hospitalero is a constant, daily stream of new faces never to be seen again. I wonder if the fact that I remembered how to say thank you in the local language, the words she taught me, touches her.
“I will teach you more words in Gallego,” she says.
“I’d love that!” I reply.
“Do you have a husband?” This intimate question makes me jump. We don’t ask about marital status in the US until we know someone better—or we ask in a roundabout way, not directly.
“Yes,” I say simply. Spain has legalized gay marriage, but this is a rural place. I decide not to quibble about esposo vs esposa.
“No, no children.”
She looks sad for a moment, then says, “It’s too bad you’re married. My cousin has a son about your age. You are learning Gallego and speak Spanish. And we already have an American girl here in the village who is married to my friend’s son.”
I am smiling. This is a stunning conversation. She’s matchmaking with a pilgrim who made the slightest effort in Spanish. I feel loved and highly amused.
“What work does your husband do?” she asks.
I don’t know how to say ‘dental hygienist’ in Spanish, so I say simply, “Es dentista.”
“Oooohhh,” she says, then points to me. “Que princesaaaa!” she says, drawing out the last vowel for dramatic effect. A princess.
Simultaneously, I blush and burst out laughing, “Si… princesa.” Spoiled, loved, cherished. That’s me.
Satisfied that I’m well provided for, the hospitalera gives me the option of several rooms, and I choose the tiny, stone one with red accent walls and a skylight. Foreign coins rest on the stones for good luck, perhaps. With only four beds, it should be a quiet night (and it is). I unpack my things, still grinning and giggling to myself about the princesa comment and can’t wait to tell Mary about it.
It was Meg, in fact, who’d asked our hospitalera that morning how to say thank you in Gallego.
At the time, I was agonizing over my unspoken attraction to Meg and whether my commitment to Mary was the right choice. Who would have thought Mary and I were capable of reinventing our relationship? Who could have imagined that the harder choice—staying together—would teach us to expose our well-protected hearts?
Meg’s acceptance showed me how. I eventually found a way to bring this whole authentic, courageous, and vulnerable self into my marriage. It took time. Even now, it’s not always pretty or perfect, but I am one very grateful princesa—I discovered a love I didn’t know was possible.
Moitas grazas to Meg.
* * *
It’s an emotional day. But that’s typical on the Camino. There’s a relentlessness to this experience, in the same way that dripping water eventually wears away stone. It can’t not change us. Though challenging, surprising, and difficult at times, the Camino slowly reveals its gifts—as long as the pilgrim doesn’t stop.