Monday, September 29, 2014

Camino Lessons: You are Ultimately Alone

July, 2004. A friend and I boarded a train in Madrid. I was thrilled to join her for the Camino de Santiago. I admired her deeply, and hoped to become better friends.

Then we met a Spanish hiker on the train. My friend chatted with this young man, and before I knew it, we were a party of three. We fell into a pattern as the days unfolded. The two of them hiked together, initiating long coffee and ice cream breaks in the heat of the day. I went ahead, trying to keep a brisk pace, turning around now and then to see them walking behind me, heads nodding in deep conversation.

What about all my conditioning to hike hard and fast? What about my hopes for close friendship? I pushed on, fussing and sweating in the Spanish sun.

Then, when I hiked too far ahead and lost them, I panicked. I wiped away tears of exhaustion with the dirty sleeve of my hike shirt. A multilingual angel from the Netherlands and a Spanish priest with a cell phone came to my rescue. (This was in the days when cell phones weren't in every pocket.)

At a shelter at Puenta La Reina, I met Heike from Germany. This tanned, beautiful mom in her fifties had trekked all the way from LePuy, France. She sat on her bunk and advised me how to bandage my blisters. When my frustrations came pouring out, she said,
"What the Camino teaches is that you must go your own pace. You may have come with a friend, but on the Camino, you are ultimately alone."
The Camino (literally "the Way") teaches what is needed. It may be a lesson in solitude. It may be a lesson in letting go of friendship. It may be slowing down, or speeding up.

Roughly, I worked on accepting aloneness. It brought up difficult feelings for this girl who grew up in a foster home and feared abandonment.

I came home treasuring the lesson and yet still confused about it. It would find its way into my life, as all pilgrim lessons do, one moment of solitude at a time.

Yet the Way is full of paradox. Just because you've learned one truth doesn't mean you don't need the opposite. 

Next lesson of the Camino: You are never alone.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The First Lesson of the Camino: What Will You Carry?

Our pain was a result of all that we were carrying.

I remembered this as I packed for my second trek on the Camino de Santiago.

July, 2004. My hiking partner and I were outfitted with high-tech shirts, thick socks, and skin care lotions. By the time we reached Trinidad de Arre, about 40 miles in, her knee froze in place and she could barely walk. My ankle screamed with each step I took on the cobbled pavement.

The priest at the monastery shelter took one look at us, shook his head and said something like, "Kilos demasiados!" My Spanish was terrible (and still is), but I got the message when he pointed to our packs and said it again.

Too much weight.

We went through our backpacks, tossing toiletries, shirts, socks. Items of value we marched to the post office and mailed home. We kept only the bare minimum.

That unforgettable pain seared my mind, so that now, packing for this trip, I thought twice about everything. Or three times.

I weighed choices - literally, using a postage scale.

The Camino forces you to simplify. You must face limitations. You have only so much room in your backpack, and only so much strength.

You've got to decide what is important to you. Cute flats for wearing in town, after hiking? Or goofy rubber Crocs that weigh next-to-nothing? Goodbye cute, hello goofy.

Shampoo and hair conditioner and Woolite and shower gel? Or just one bar of soap? Goodbye pampered skin, hello getting by.

And so it went.

When it comes to deciding what to carry, each person has different issues.

Not surprisingly, I started this year's journey noticing backpacks.

The biggest backpack belonged to a cheerful, dark-haired pilgrim from Germany. She seemed to be moving quite slow.

"I just have to ask," I said. "Why are you carrying such an enormous pack?"

"It's really not that heavy," Marie said. She explained that her original intent was to camp out so she had packed tent and sleeping pad.

As the days went on, I kept seeing her plodding along the trail. At one point, she had given up her boots and wore sandals which revealed a mass of bandages swaddling her blistered feet. She always wore a smile. "I'll get there," she said. "One way or another."

And then there was the guy with two backpacks. "Um," I said. "You've got a backpack on your chest." As if he didn't know. "What's that about?"

In his salty New Zealand accent, Paul answered, "I have a hard time letting go."

I couldn't help but chuckle. He said it as if it were a genetic trait and he had no choice in the matter. "You have a hard time letting go," I repeated.


The smallest backpack also caught my attention. "What's with the tiny pack?" I asked the young Virginian when I finally caught up to his brisk pace.

"It was a hard lesson for me," he said. "I'm an athlete, so it was tough admitting when my legs and feet started giving out. I took a rest, and now I have my regular backpack sent by taxi each day. If not for that decision, I wouldn't be here." Brock had covered 300 miles so far, from St. Jean Pied de Port.

My own pack, by the way, wasn't as light as I'd hoped to get it.

I'd kept some things. The hairbrush, a gift from my daughter. The sleeping bag vs. sleeping sack. The flowered top, so I could have something that felt "girl."

The question of what to carry can never be answered once and for all. It's a lesson that unfolds as our priorities change, as we get to know ourselves better, and as we grow.

As for Paul from New Zealand, I caught up with him a hundred miles later. "I got rid of my extra pack!" he said. "I just . . . let it go!"  Because he found out that he really could.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Real Journey is This

The Real Work
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

by Wendell Berry, from Collected Poems, 1987

El Camino de Santiago: A New Beginning, A Look Back

As I begin my Camino this week, I look back at my visit ten years ago. I started on what is known as the "French Way," hiking over the Pyrenees into Spain. 

Pilgrim Anne gets credit for starting me on the journey. She has hiked the Camino three times!

That first visit, I completed 150 miles of the French Way. This time, I'll pick up the trail in Leon and continue to Santiago. I'm not married to any plan, though - and I'm not sure how much blogging I'll be doing, as I'm not carrying any wired gadgets.

Silence, for me, is a key component of the walk.

And so is the willingness to accept what comes.

My first pilgrimage taught me that the most important thing is an open heart toward every experience, even if it takes you away from what you thought was supposed to happen.

My intention now, is to savor each step and discovery. In truth, you're only ever here once.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

El Camino de Santiago, Finding the Path, and Getting Lost

A decade ago, I joined a friend on El Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage in northern Spain. Marked by the yellow scallop shell, the road has been traveled by countless pilgrims over eight hundred years.

I came home with blistered feet, a mind full of landscapes and faces, and a soul that felt certain I was on the right path.  
And then, last summer, that path ran in circles. It trailed into the woods. It disappeared. 

I’d known exactly where I was in my life, in my relationships and roles. Now I looked up and nothing seemed familiar. I was lost.

At first, I panicked. And then, over the months, I began to change. Now I understand that lostness is an important part of the journey.

If we are certain of our destination, and how it will unfold, we can’t be nudged, guided, led to new things. We become glib and presumptuous. We stop listening to the Spirit.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, An Altar in the World, writes about getting lost as a spiritual practice. “[S]omething is happening to you in this wilderness that does not happen when you are safe at home.”

Indeed, one afternoon last summer, traveling Germany's oldest city with my husband, an even stranger thing happened. He got lost. This never happens. He has a mind like a map.

Caught in a drizzle, we retraced our steps for miles. He sighed over the guidebook that had made sense until now. It felt like the perfect metaphor for our relationship, for my soul, for all the lostness I felt. 

Then we turned a corner.

There it was: the scallop shell. Turns out, we were on the Camino--Jakobsweg, as it’s known in Germany. 

I was on my path even when I felt most lost.

Again and again, I heard the consolation of Spirit: “You’re exactly where you belong.” The sweet thing is, I can’t give myself credit. I’m humbled to keep following, keep listening, and not take anything or anyone for granted.

Last Sunday I gathered with a small group of Camino veterans. They blessed me and gave me a scallop shell for my journey.

Because I’m heading out again. In about a week, I’m going back on the Camino, an outward walk to complement my inward practice. I have a deeper understanding of pilgrimage now, allowing for surprises and the unknown. Knowing that being lost, and being on the path, are often the very same thing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Communion: A Poem

by Livia Montana

I chew on the divine
while pondering the ever-changing
grocery list of what I need to buy
I’m sure of no priest’s approval
and yet I believe
Mother Mary does not look down
on this unorthodox rosary

After all, how many lists
must she have recited
to keep her own
all-too-human divine
alive long enough
to die in time?

Who can judge the radiance
of the commonplace? For instance,
if I place the word “eggs”
as an item on my rosary
and a choir of brain cells
hosannas to another and again
beyond measure of what I am

That I am
the feeling
of that smooth
and bumpy shell
that my mind is both creator
and container
of a presence,
a holy ghost

And even more
if I apprehend,
the thin
semi-permeable membrane separating
what could’ve been
from what now keeps me
alive—who can proclaim
that anything but divine?

Thank you, poet and Wildfire Writer Livia Montana for this poem of proclamation and presence.

Friday, June 27, 2014

His Third Wife: Lessons on Marriage and Becoming

The second husband, the second wife

The husband and I have been discussing his second wife.

"I miss her," he says.

"She was sweet," I agree.

"She did so many nice things," he says.

"Yes." I should know. That second wife was me.

Over the past twelve months - a difficult year, a beautiful year - I've learned new things about myself. I've resolved to honor that person. I've delved into my gifts with fresh vigor. I've grown and challenged myself to paint, play, write, and wander. 

I've become a new person.

Exploring new territory

I'm no longer the wife who makes dinner every night, or joins her husband on the couch for movies. I've stopped scheduling social events on his behalf. I don't ask for permission any more - to put my art on the walls, to make new friends, or to write and create on a Saturday instead of hang out with the hubs.

I know. Some of you wives are gasping in disbelief. Others are jealous.

It's been a process of honesty and investigation - finding out what I'm truly about and discovering how to be this human being. I trust that the more I'm following Spirit, the more I can bless the world.

It's my job alone to become this human being. Gone are the days of wanting someone else to define me, even my husband.

Which means I'm now his third wife.

Situations will arise, and I'll say, or he'll say, "The second wife would've said yes." Ah, but the third wife says no. Or waits. Or says what she really thinks about it.

And in all this, there's a dialogue, a noticing, a freedom, a new way.

I've been grateful for the guides and friends who have supported me on this journey. They've acknowledged how this needed to happen; they've been witnesses to the me who was hiding.

Hiding and calling it service. Calling it wifehood. Really it wasn't so servy after all.

True service only happens when you know who you are. 

Where two rivers meet (the Rhine and the Mosel)

So the other morning, the husband said, "You just keep getting prettier and prettier." Which is sweet. This second husband of mine has always been so wonderful with compliments.

I paused. "You like the way I'm changing on the outside. But you don't like the other ways I'm changing."

"That's right!" he chirped, grinning. 

"Ohmygosh!" I said. "You just told me the truth of your feelings!" We both laughed.

Obviously, this is no longer my second husband.

This one is my third.