Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Camino Lessons: You Will Be Directed


When we are in a lost place, it can take a long time to find our bearings. We may start blaming ourselves for not knowing where we are.

And then we blame God. She must not want us to know anything. He must be hiding the signs. Maybe there aren't any signs at all.

Last year, I felt lost in my marriage. Our sense of direction as a couple was playing Hide and Seek with us. And when so many things were changing in my life, I began to think I would never know my direction again.

The Camino reminded me, in a gentle way, that Divine direction will return.  


Intermittently along the Camino, waymarkers show the path. Sometimes they are feet apart. Sometimes they're distanced by miles. And sometimes the markers are there, but the pilgrim can't see them - because she has looked away, or is hiking in the dark, or the rain has worn down the image. 

The sign of the Camino is the scallop shell. Shells are embedded in pavement, raised on highway signs, carved into stone pillars, or painted on rocks. 

Also, there's the yellow arrow. Arrows show up on fences, buildings, boulders. Or in other creative formations . . . .


"Did you see the arrow?" my hiking partner and I would ask each other a dozen times a day. This became shortened to a point and a gesture, or we'd simply say, "Arrow," and move on.

When you're road-weary from a day on the trail, and haven't seen a marker for the last hour, the absence of a sign fills you with despair.

The day's trek seems a waste. Everything hurts that can hurt. The stomach yowls with hunger.

And you feel forgotten. Overlooked. Incidental.

And then . . . there it is. The sign that says, "Yes. You're right where you belong."
Your heart does a happy handspring.

Indeed, the road winds through strange places. 


It twists behind a tumbledown shed, zigs around an alley, darts through a village overrun with chickens, plummets down a rocky traverse. But it is all okay, because you know you're on the right path.

Sometimes you have to wait for direction.

The waiting can be hard.

This doesn't mean you'll never know your place again.

When the assurance comes, it is sweet.

For me, sometimes I felt like crying, or singing. I wasn't just learning about yellow arrows and scallop shells, but what it is to trust.

In my life, in my marriage - it all began to unfold with possibility. With connection. With renewal. I saw the path forward.  

Since I've been home, that instinct to look for the signs has stayed with me. Once I saw a scallop shell in a wall mirror. I blinked, looked again, and recognized a pleated lampshade.

Another day I was feeling crunched at work and drove up the highway. Stopped and walked in a small town neighborhood. My heart recognized the shell before I knew what I was looking at.


Again, I was in the right place . . .  

The signs are everywhere.

Because we're meant to know.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Camino Lessons: You are Never Alone



May, 2014. When Heather brainstormed with me about walking the Camino de Santiago in late summer, I told her our plans had to be tentative. "I learned that even though you make a plan with a friend, you are ultimately alone. The Camino has its own plan."

Sure enough, as the weeks played out we looked at different things. Heather made hotel reservations and arranged to see sights. I wanted the traditional Camino - the long-distance walks and low-cost shelters filled with snoring pilgrims. (Yes, crazy, but that experience was calling me.) We decided to meet in Sarria in mid-September if it worked out. 

It was a year of empty-nest examination and cyclones of the heart. Looking at my life, I began to wonder how much aloneness I might have to endure. The confusing feelings about my marriage were a reminder that nothing in life is guaranteed. I was ready to hike the road ahead without expectations.

I was afraid. Yet learning to trust. I trusted my Divine Companion, just as I trusted the Camino ("the Way"). I would get the lessons I needed - and accept the solitude.


And so, on September 2, I reached the convent albergue in Leon, my starting point. As I stood in line to get a stamp for my Pilgrim Passport, a tall, willowy form stepped up. She spoke English with an American accent, and just a trace of something else. "Are you on your own?" she asked.

"Yes! It's my first time doing the Camino alone," I said.

"I'm alone, too," she said, smiling a beautiful smile. Her eyes danced with a spirit of adventure.

Home meant Berlin for her, Portland for me. Elle was 30, while I'd just turned 48. She was an accomplished professional and world traveler. As we chatted, we wandered crooked cobblestone squares and winding streets, getting lost.* A kind local on a bike had to guide us back to the albergue before the nuns locked the doors. 

"Do you want to hike out together in the morning?" she asked as she climbed onto the top bunk and I wedged into the space below. "Sure," I said, thinking it would be lovely to have someone join me for this one, first day.

At the end of our second day, I asked her the same question.

At the end of our twelfth day, we stood in the streets of Santiago together, footsore and grateful.


Together, we had covered two hundred miles. We had hiked hour after hour, day after day. We'd complained about the blisters on our feet, the snorers in the dormitories, the annoying day-trippers who posed as pilgrims. We took Communion with a band of Catholics from Australia.

We commiserated about aching knees, whined about the brutal afternoon sun, and took turns gently urging the other person forward. We told the stories of our confusing love lives. We ate dark chocolate in Astorga and pulpo in Melide. In Molinaseca, she taught me the proper European way to eat a whole fish. We counted kilometers, searched for waymarkers, gasped at the beauty of the Galician morning mist.

We laughed and gossiped; at Cruz de Ferro we held each other at the foot of the cross while our eyes brimmed with tears.

I'd been prepared for solitude; I had never expected partnership.


The walk opened my heart. As I allowed my Divine Companion to walk with me, this human had come alongside. And besides Elle, I bonded with walkers from all over the world. I was taken aback at my own ability to welcome and befriend.   

There were nights of loneliness, even so. I had no phone or tablet, and couldn't find Heather on the date we had set. I skipped dinner with the pilgrims and sat with my journal. Messages of support came from home when I felt most homesick. We must feel our feelings - all of them, and when we do, we broaden our capacity for love. 

Whether in solitude or partnership, what we fear is the sense of being alone. Once we accept this ultimate aloneness, we can allow warmth, trust, togetherness. 

And even more powerfully, I was flooded with appreciation for the man who has anchored my life for sixteen years. I missed him so. I felt his love. A vision emerged, with new ways of relating that will deepen our relationship and help us grow into an exciting empty-nest future.

As for Heather, we did finally connect. We had two lovely meals together toward the end of the pilgrimage. She had a good friend from her hometown as her traveling partner and they enjoyed late mornings and long coffee breaks.

By then, my pattern was pretty much set. Every morning I'd tumble out of my bottom bunk, and my sidekick would tumble out of the top. We'd wrestle our stuff into our backpacks and hike out at 7, watching the dawn swallow up the morning shadows as we got ready to push ourselves as far as we could go.      




"You were sent to me," Elle said. Oh, but she was sent to me, too. What I learned is to always stay open for partnership, even while accepting solitude.






____________________________

*We did get lost a couple of times on the Camino, but backtracking was easy. Leaving a cafe, we were corrected by an old gentleman in a cap who gruffed, "A donde vas?" Another time, two bicyclers jabbed their thumbs in the opposite direction as they sped along. As if they redirected pilgrims all day long. Which they probably did. (Which brings us to another lesson of the Camino: You will be directed.)

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.

"Yes."

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.