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.)