Camino Life Lessons

S.A. and I are still in the Berkshires, but our sons, who drove up for the week with the dogs, have now left for home.

We’re staying a week longer with Katherine to help her with her house and her decision to sell it. Since she’s in her eighties and does not use the Internet, she needs our assistance. The world has evolved from looking for real estate agents in the phone book, alas. 

After our sons left, I felt so alone. I went for a walk up Cone Hill Rd, but after an hour in the sun and fresh air, some of the sadness drifted off and sailed into the approaching clouds. 

On the Camino people were constantly entering and leaving my life. Even though it wasn’t the same as missing my dear sons, I still felt the joy of seeing old friends and the pang of sadness at our leave taking.

Each day on the pilgrimage had a different tenor, and after a while I learned to accept whatever the day brought. 

After reaching Sarria, where many routes converge and the number of pilgrims increases, I listened to the wisdom of a longtime pilgrim who said, “After Sarria, the Camino changes. It becomes a giant picnic where people are out for a good time. You have to adjust.”

Instead of feeling irritated at the maurading teens on the path with their iPhones piping in pop music, I opened myself up to a new experience without judging myself or others. I didn’t love the blaring music and the screaming laughter after my weeks of meditative solitude, but I enjoyed the kids’ enthusiasm for life and their excitement of being with school friends on the Camino. I accepted the new day. 

So now my sons are gone and it’s just S.A., my mother-in-law, and I in her little house near the creek with no Internet or TV. It’s a new phase of my time here without my sons’ lively conversation and zest for life. I’m adjusting to the quiet by walking, writing, and swimming across the Stockbridge Bowl. If it rains tomorrow, I’ll go to a yoga class. 

And it goes without saying that I need to cultivate gratitude for being in such a beautiful place during summer vacation time.    

Keeping the Camino Alive

On a physical level, the best outcome of my pilgrimage is that after 22 years I have been able to go off anti-depressants. 

I don’t mean to judge anyone who takes SSRIs, not at all. We are all trying to figure out what our lives mean and how best to live.  

It wasn’t the Camino alone that helped me ween myself off them. I also had the help of a mind-body therapist who continues to offer suggestions for passing through anxiety and panic, the two main symptoms of the depression I have experienced off and on since childhood. 

If the medications work, then take them. But after more than two decades on various SSRIs, I had fluctuating blood pressure and strange head rushes that led to near fainting, symptoms that have now disappeared since I went off the medication. 

I attribute my peace of mind to the days and days of spending six to eight hours outdoors, walking and meditating. Even though the heat in Georgia can be unbearable, I continue to walk.

Each day is a new challenge in maintaining a balance of body, mind, and spirit. I’m tottering on a fragile tightrope of sanity, but walking and writing continue to be my medicine. 

   
    
    
    
   
Yesterday’s hike:

About 8 or 9 miles, from Burnt Hickory Road to Dallas Highway at Kennesaw Battlefield Park, then on to the visitor’s center and back to Burnt Hickory.

Creatures I noticed:

Dragonflies, ants, butterflies, various birds, including two giant vultures, a wee toad, about the size of my thumb pad, a chipmunk, many squirrels.

I stood still and listened to the cicadas in the trees and the grasshoppers in the tall grass. There was very little breeze, and the trees were still and silent, their leaves dry and weary from the heat. The noise from the highway and the passing trains at times overpowered the silence of the woods.  

It was a heavy, humid trek. I encouraged myself to keep walking by remembering the way I felt toward the end of my walks on the Camino–with sore feet and tired legs, I still managed to make it up those steep inclines. You can do this, I told myself. 

A Long Walk Might Be Like Drinking Ayahuasca

In a comment on a recent post, “Why Go on a Pilgrimage?, “  Elissa from Sometimes She Travels  writes: In fact, one piece of Camino graffiti from last year that I thought about every day this year was, “What are you doing? Why?” 

It has been 24 days since I returned from Spain, and I am still processing how the journey has changed me. Once we begin a pilgrimage, we never truly leave it. It’s a spiral, a labyrinth that continuously leads us closer to the center.

In some ways, going on a very long walk seems to resemble a shamanic healing. Most of us have heard about the Australian aborigines’ ritual of the Walkabout. There are also the stories of Jesus walking in the desert for 40 days, or the Coptic Saint Mary of Egypt, who wandered in the desert a for lifetime with the hopes of purging herself of her “sinful” nature.

A pilgrimage to heal from the emotional wounds of life has a different goal, one that resembles an extended  psychedelic trip. Maybe that’s how I see it, since I spent a long part of the journey in a self-induced poetic trance.

Although I’ve never experienced an ayahuasca ceremony, after reading Kira Salak’s “Perú: Hell and Back,” an account of how her five ayahuasca ceremonies in Perú changed her perspective, I can say my pilgrimage has had a similar outcome.

Speaking about coming out of a great darkness and entering the light, Salak writes:  Little suspecting that I’d emerge from it feeling as if a waterlogged wool coat had been removed from my shoulders—literally feeling the burden of depression lifted—and thinking that there must be something to this crazy shamanism after all.

Salak states that her first ayahuasca rituals helped heal the depression she had suffered since childhood, but that she continued to experience self-doubt and fear, so she went on a second journey for further healing.

Like Salak, I have experienced relief from depression, not after taking ayahuasca (which intrigues me but may or may not be my path), but after completing a 40-day walk to Santiago de Compostela.

Also similar to Salak, who repeated her journey to Perú,  I am considering another pilgrimage to Santiago in the future. When I know the medicine works, it’s tempting to take more of it, and I’d much rather rely on a very long walk than the SSRIs I took for decades that I now no longer need. Maybe I never needed them.

A Walking Fool

At the bottom of this photo is a faint yellow arrow on the sidewalk where I was walking one morning in Georgia. You can take the pilgrim off the Camino, but you can’t take the Camino out of the pilgrim. I just finished the Way of St. James on June 28, but I keep walking, walking, walking.

IMG_6059

*For those who haven’t walked the Camino, the way is marked with yellow arrows. It’s impossible to get lost if you’re paying attention. Although I will admit to losing my way a few times due to distraction.

I haven’t stopped walking since my return, in spite of sore feet and soles so callused my skin looks and feels like a bull’s horn. Walking helps me maintain the peace I experienced after all the days of walking in the fresh air. Walking has become my medicine.

I walk and think about writing, relationships, memories. I walk until I don’t feel anger or grief. I walk until all I know is that my body is exerting itself in the muggy heat, sweat coating all exposed skin.

Why Go on a Pilgrimage?

“Why are you doing the Camino?” is one of the most common questions a pilgrim is asked along the way. It’s probably the hardest question to answer.

When you request a pilgrim’s passport, the credential that allows you access to the city and charity hostels, they give you a questionnaire to complete, asking your reasons for walking the Camino. The possible reasons include religion, spirituality, culture and history, and sport.

Also, when you stand in line in Santiago de Compostela to receive your “Compostela,” the document that proves you completed the pilgrimage, these same questions are asked. You show your pilgrim’s passport with the stamps you’ve collected along the way, and the volunteer at the desk then asks you to give your age and your motivation for going on the pilgrimage.

My reasons for going to Spain and walking the Camino changed as I went along. From the start my journey was spiritual but not religious. I’m not a practicing Catholic, even though while in Spain I found the ritual to be beautiful at times, but overly somber at others.

What I wanted was the freedom to walk under an expansive sky all day long with nothing to think about except my most basic thoughts, and that is what I received, although the process wasn’t as simple as all that.

I met a retired Australian man named Tim at a hostel in a town called  Hornillos del Camino.  Over beers in the backyard of the hostel (Australians consider beer to be a food, I’ve been told), Tim said, “The Camino has a way of purifying one’s thoughts. While we walk, the only thoughts that end up calling our attention away from the images, sounds, and smells of walking, are ones that concern the body: Where will I sleep tonight? What will I have for dinner?”

Later that evening I saw Tim lying on the grass with his legs up the wall to let his circulation have a rest, caring for the body.

But not everyone has this experience. I met many young people who were on the Camino to heal from traumatic life experiences. Some were trying to get over heartbreak and loss.

I know I had a few days when I was very tired from all the walking. One night I had too much wine to drink (after walking 20 miles, more than one glass of wine is too much for me), and the next day I walked up one of the highest mountains of the Camino (this story deserves its own blog post, which I will eventually write). For seven kilometers I cried all the way up the mountain, out of self pity, rage, and homesickness.

After about ten days of walking I developed shin splints, and every step I took was painful. I was creeping along when I saw Philip from Belgium who had begun walking two months prior from his hometown. “Take it easy,” he said. “The Camino is the Happy Road.” That’s the day I decided to take a bus to the next town and walk only 10 kilometers.

Philip’s attitude toward the Camino is different than others. Many believe that to go on a true pilgrimage, one should suffer. For Philip, the Camino was a way to celebrate life. He smoked cigarettes, drank coffee, beer, and wine, and walked on the plains at night to see the stars.

One of the names of the Camino is La Via Lactea, The Milky Way. Historians say that early pilgrims followed the Milky Way to reach Santiago de Compostela. Compostela translates as “field of stars.”

I was walking in May, right when many twenty-something students begin their summer vacation, so there were a lot of college kids from all over the U.S. Canada, Europe, and Korea. Many of these kid were doing the Camino as a physical challenge, walking 50 km a day. Their experience was completely different from mine, I’m sure.

At the cathedral in Santiago, I saw a young Korean buddy I had met in France at the beginning; I was weeping from gratitude at having arrived, but he was grinning from ear to ear and said, “Why are you crying?” I just gave him a big hug in response.

I’m still thinking about how my journey has changed me. For now, though, I will keep walking. The Camino lives on.

Home

After walking every day for a month and a half, I must admit I am addicted to the movement. I’ve never felt so good in my life. Spending at least eight hours a day outdoors, moving at a vigorous but not taxing pace, was and is the medicine I need.

Today in Georgia it’s raining with some thunder and lightning, and I’m feeling a bit antsy from staying indoors. The sky is dark, and I’m missing the freedom I feel from being outdoors. What would I do now if I were still on the Camino? I’d put on a rain poncho and keep walking.

One of the lessons I am learning from the Camino is that the Way doesn’t end, it only changes. It’s time to put on my boots and live the Camino as it manifests itself where I happen to be right now–in a semi tropical rain forest filled with tree frogs, cicadas, goldfinch, and chickadees.

These little birds congregate in my front yard because of my husband’s new bird feeder. He watches them through his office window. He invites the Camino to his front door, a different way.

Trees surrounding my back porch.

Trees surrounding my back porch.

Day 19, Calzadilla de la Cueza

The town where I stopped today has a population of 50, if that. My plan was to walk 30 km to a hostel run by Italians that’s supposed to be very warm and friendly, but the relentless rain changed my plans. 

It turns out that my waterproof jacket is not at all waterproof, and I got soaked to the skin. Also, my boots are not waterproof, and my feet were sopping wet. 

There was no place to stop along the way for coffee or warmth, so I kept slogging my way through. I’ve never walked  ten miles so fast under such dismal conditions–cold rain, wind, thunder, lightning. 

All I could see were wheat fields and grey sky, with an occasional swallow or  sparrow darting across the wheat. 

A pocketful of hard candy got me through the morning. I gave one to an Englishman who was passing me, and he said, “Yesterday my feet hurt and that’s all I could think about. Today, I’m not worrying about my feet. It’s easy to walk when the sun is shining. Now we have to dig deep.”

At one point a sign in yellow letters painted on a bridge said, “Store, 6 KM.” When I saw a tower in the distance, shadowy in the rain, I thought,”Yes I can make it there and dry off a bit.”

My Dutch friend Andre said, “It was the Tower of Hope.”

But the tower turned out to be another kilometer off the path, and it did not belong to a town.

Another kilometer further and a hostel appeared at the edge of what looked like a ghost town–no people in sight except pilgrims in rain ponchos with backpacks like humps growing out of their backs.

Once inside the hostel, my hands were so numb that a young Australian girl had to unbuckle my pack for me to get it off. After I took off my wet boots and socks, I sat down to a huge plate of paella, and even though it was only 11:30 in the morning, I had a glass of red wine with it. 

At home I would never drink wine or eat paella so early in the day, but after that walk, I didn’t care. It was good.

So good, I decided to stay at this hostel for tonight. My clothes and sleeping bag are drying, and I’ll rest up for tomorrow. It’s supposed to rain again tomorrow, but I’ll take it as it comes.

Tonight I had dinner with a huge group of pilgrims that I’ve met along the way: a German couple and many French people. One woman, Jacky, speaks no English, so she chatters away with me in French. I understand one or two words here and there, but mostly I just nod and smile.

After all the walking we did in the rain, we were still fortunate enough to be in a warm hostel with good food and friendly people. I wonder what it was like for medieval pilgrims. Hopefully they at least had some bread and wine at the end of the day. 

A Spanish man told me this saying: “Con pan y vino se hace el camino.”

“With bread and wine the Camino is made.”  

 

Day 3 of Camino 

Today I walked 21 km from Roncesvalles to Zubiri, a small town in Navarra. Navarra is part of the Basque region of Spain and France, and all the road and street signs are in Spanish and Euskera, the Basque language. It has been fun speaking Spanish again and reacquainting myself with the culture.

The Spanish consider Roncesvalles to be the start of the Camino de Santiago. There’s a very modern pilgrim’s shelter there, modernized in 2011. 

The shelter is located in what used to be an Augustinian monastery, and it’s attached to a church that was originally built in the twelfth century.

Last night I attended a special mass for pilgrims to receive a blessing, the same blessing that has passed down through the centuries since medieval times.

There was a beautiful gold light illuminating the altar, and above hung a statue of the Virgin Mary made of gold-plated walnut. 

The priest spoke of the mystery of the faith, of the word of God, but the mystery that he spoke of that touches my heart the most is the mystery of nature. That’s where I go to connect with what it means to be free and at peace. 

                 

Pamplona, Before the Camino

I decided to spend two days in Pamplona before heading to France to begin my walk. I’ve needed these last two days to adjust to the new time zone and to rest from the two days of travel.

When I landed in Madrid, I tried to connect to the free internet at the airport, and when I wasn’t able to, I panicked and bought a phone with a Spanish SIM card. My original plan had been to Skype with my husband through WiFi without needing a phone, and I hadn’t unlocked my iphone to use a new SIM card.

Long story short, I’ve found that I have no problem using WiFI as long as I enter a password. So now I have an android phone I don’t need. I’ll probably donate it to a women’s shelter when I get home. If I can figure out how to remove the SIM card, I’ll give it to one of the many people on the streets who are asking for money.

The other mistake I made was to purchase a bus ticket online for Pamplona. This would have been fine, except I bought a ticket for 1 o’clock in the morning when what I had needed was 13:00 h, international time.

The woman at the counter was obviously very sorry for me when she saw my distress. She offered to let me come to the front of the line if I couldn’t find a train ride up north.

In the end, I took a 3-hour train ride and made it to Pamplona at around 6:00 (18:00h!). I slept most of the way, exhausted after the eight hour flight and the mishaps at the airport.

Maybe it’s my age, or maybe it’s my attitude, but I took these hitches as the Way once again teaching me patience and mindfulness. I’m on a pilgrimage, and if everything were easy, it wouldn’t be very meaningful.

                    

A Poem for the Way

I’m preparing for my pilgrimage to Santiago in a fairly intensive manner during these last few days, mostly in a reflective and meditative way.

When I walk in the woods with my loaded pack, my mind wanders over the some of the different events in my life that continue to cause pain, but beneath the pain I absorb the healing power of the sky, the trees, birds, the rocks, the lizards, the deer, and the other hikers.

Some of my friends and loved ones responded to my call for lines of poetry, prayers, wishes, or desires that I could put into one long poem. My intention is to read the poem at different points along the Camino.

I am so touched by their generosity. I want their words to fill others as they fill me. It’s titled “Prayers for a Traveler.” We are all travelers in this world.

Prayers for the Traveler

Hath she her faults? I would you had them too.
                      They are the fruity musts of soundest wine;
                      Or say, they are regenerating fire
                      Such as hath turned the dense black element
                      Into a crystal pathway for the sun.
–George Eliot

She is only a faint line disappearing back into sand.

O blessed road! Although the hard ground and slope veers ever upward,

I am not naked nor alone: my feet are shod with thoughts of God, my body robed

with love from family and friends back home.

May my mom know that I love her and miss her and think about her everyday.

May you be given all you need

May you be granted that for which your heart longs

May angels guide your journey, and may your steps be light

May you be blessed by a field of stars, and may those blessings follow you always

May your soul cry and sing and open, now free.

May you shed your skin and become anew.

May you be refilled to fully embrace the array

of possibilities that will open up for you

as you continue your journey – the trail and beyond.

May compassion become our universal religion.

I accompany you in spirit, and I hope your sojourn brings you what you seek.

I wish you lightness of step and heart

I wish for you that when the days feel long and doubt enters – you push it aside.

Aside –

Perhaps – like the dandelions losing their thin, yellow petals,

as they are swept in the wind – scattered…

Do not carry doubt, or worry, speculation, or question-of-self

Walk with grace and trust and love

The very thing I try to do in my life – and sometimes, struggle – and how ….

I ask you to look upward at the sky and pray

for health and peace of mind – love and light

Be safe, be real, be true.

You are brave and I am proud

I ask you to return safely with stories of adventure,

some turmoil perhaps, and lots of gratitude and growth.

Return safely, keep strong, be safe.

May God give my son more healing in his spiritual journey.

Didn’t I tell you not to be seduced by this colorful world,
for I am the ultimate painter.

Please let me grow into my elderly years
happily, healthfully and peacefully
with my husband as my son goes to college,
meets a wonderful partner and has a family of his own,
which we will help nurture and be an integral part of.

Enfold us in your arms, shield us from sadness and despair,
look over us in times of joy and times of fear,
do not let us feel emptiness or hopelessness,
and lead us to believe in our dreams and longings.

At the exhibition of the artists of elsewhere
I am standing in a shaft of light.

Thank you, jahgod, for allowing me to see the light
and freeing me from hang ups
I know that the future is mine to grasp.

May the long time sun
Shine upon you,
All love surround you,
And the pure light within you
Guide your way on.
–Kundalini farewell blessing

thistle