It’s Time To Clear Off the Tables

Photo via Unsplash

Last night I had a dream about climbing a snow-covered hill on the Camino.  I could see a group ahead of me, Christina and some other familiar faces among them, all cresting the hill and out of sight.  It wasn’t snowing, but there were at least six inches of thick wet slush on the trail, weighing down each step. Suddenly, a strong wind lifted me off my feet and carried me, not unlike a bird caught in a crosswind, off the trail and into an adjoining field.  I saw my fellow pilgrims getting further and further away, continuing on as I stood far from the path.  Just up the hill from my landing place, was the extension of a long, endless cafe.  The building began at the crest of the mountain, back on the Camino itself, but stretched out all the way to my part of the field, like a long one-floor corridor with old dusty windows and wood-framed doors.

When I walked up to see inside, rows and rows of unused, antique cafe chairs and tables lined the corridor, clearly untouched for years.  It had a spooky, forgotten quality, and I worried in the dream that I might see something unexpected in the shadows of the dream cafe.  But suddenly, in the distance back by the trail, I saw the cafe’s lights begin to flicker on, showing signs of life for the first time in what was clearly a long time.

As quickly as the first gust came along, another gust of wind lifted me back to the Camino and I enthusiastically began to climb to the snowy hill to catch up with my fellow pilgrims.  The incline became so steep that I began digging my hands into the snow, pulling myself up the hill.  But I wasn’t angry or afraid at this point, just fighting through the all-too-familiar exhaustion faced at the end of each Camino day.

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An Afternoon of (Almost) Writing, or How to Make Pumpkin Chili

At the start of this post, I have one completed article, three new article pitches, and a slow cooker full of pumpkin chili.  What I do not have, my dear friends, is a single additional word of either my book outline or actual book that I set the past four hours aside to work on.  Nope.  Not a word. Instead, my big day of writing went like this:

It’s 11am, and I finish and submit my article to an editor–this my paid “day job” writing.  This particular article addresses meditating during your workday.

Since I now feel like a hypocrite–sitting in pajamas while doing work, NOT having meditated–I sit on down and meditate for about 15 minutes, all the while thinking about how to keep my cat from scratching up the decorative baskets I keep next to my meditation area.

11:30: I clean up all the scraps from the ripped-up baskets, realize the rest of the room is covered in a mountain of fuzz, and continue to clean.  Cleaning is important!

It is now noon.  I should sit and finish my book outline.

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How to Return

The past two nights, I’ve stumbled through NYC pretending that I fit in, ignoring–or hiding–that I still feel like an outsider.  I stop extra long at busy intersections–at one point so long that a feisty West Village pedestrian smacks into the back of me without a word of “Oops” or apology.  I’m in the way.  But I can’t explain to them that I recently spent five weeks with traffic as one of my biggest contenders.  Before you leave, you avoid telling your parents or husband that car accidents are the biggest–and pretty frequent–cause of pilgrim injuries, or worse (Hi dad!).  I scuttered across a few too many highways with a heavy backpack because the yellow arrows told me to.  But alas, here I am, a safer New Yorker.

I am also used to being the “other” in a city. I see women walking toward me with makeup and fashionable clothing, and my brain still tells me that I am an outsider in hand-washed hiking pants, a faded blue shirt, and a nylon headband covering the heat rash on my neck.  I know I’m not, I’m one of the normals now.  But that’s the issue, I don’t feel like it.  I don’t feel like them and I know I’m not like them.

The true issue is figuring out what the hell you do with this confused energy right after you get back from a trip of this sort.  This happened to me last time as well, and honestly, I thought it had to do more with life events at the time, and not a pilgrim-reintegration syndrome, an issue I just made up all on my own.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not a total mess by any means. In reality, I’m sitting at my new homemade desk (because I now write from home for a living, yay!)–with some calming folk music, a hot mug of freshly made coffee, and even a small oil diffuser that calmly changes colors every few seconds.  I could not be in more of a comfortable, introvert-friendly, privileged scenario than right now.  So why am I such an emotionally stunted grouch half the day?

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The Permission to Scream

Last night, I had a dream about screaming at the top of my lungs.  In a normal situation, this would have been a nightmare. But since I am only two weeks out from Camino #2, nothing is quite normal.  My knees don’t really straighten yet, my calluses are still hideous, and more importantly, I’m having dream flashbacks to conversations from four weeks ago:

After a rather scary, 90-degree hike into Los Arcos, on what I remember to be the 4th or 5th day of hiking, Christina and I sat down to dinner with two of our favorite early Camino family members–Patrick and Steve.  Patrick–a feisty Irish guy in his 60s–was on his second Camino…that month.  He had gotten to the end of the trip a week or so prior, only to come back to the start and begin again.  His reasoning for this is currently lost in my cloud of fuzzy memories, but it doesn’t really matter for the sake of the story–and people make wilder decisions in the world of the Camino anyway.  People at home think 500 miles is insane, but in that world, we’d all made that decision, and people had come much farther. No one questions it though; no one asks “Why the hell are we all just walking in that direction?” or even, “Why don’t we stop putting our bodies through this pain?”  No one asks because the why either doesn’t matter or doesn’t change the fact that we’re there either way, trusting that we aren’t supposed to have an answer.

Anyway, dinner with Steve and Patrick.  We named Steve the patron saint of afternoon drinks. Though he was nearly a generation above us, Steve beat us by hours each day, even in the heat of that infuriating, direct-sun trudge through the open dessert before Los Arcos.  I had reached a point of heat so extreme that my sweat was colder than my skin–a creepy sensation that makes you feel like you’re sweating ice water.  Probably not ideal.  By the time we reached the town, I was ready for any structure that provided shade or produced water.  And yet without fail, Steve was already on the patio of the albergue, sipping a cold glass of white wine as we dragged ourselves in, red and panting from the heat.

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Post-Camino Zombie Phase

I have officially entered post-Camino-zombie phase.  After Camino number one in 2009, I had one full day at home with my family before boarding a southbound airplane and launching into a “getting to know you”-new-job situation. So as strange as I feel now, I am grateful for the silence of my living room, the promise of at-home work (which will hopefully be more than “promise” soon), and the freedom to be a zombie.

There is one part of my mind that is still seeing the rolling hills and endless wheat fields, and another part of my brain that is desperately trying to remember the details of everything that happened there.  I attributed my last post-Camino crash to a pretty lousy break up that commenced two days after reaching Santiago, but now I wonder if this feeling happens either way.  I just feel lost, confused by the silence around me while I’m home and confused by the chatter when I go out.  I’m used to heading into a town square and knowing half the people around me–if not by name, then by nickname–like “the twins with the hats” or “Irish guy with rolling backpack.”  We were known as a variety of things as well–Jersey girls, academic girls, and who knows what else.

On the Camino, you can learn the deepest, most intimate details of someone’s life before knowing their name.

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Aaaaand We’re Back

Man.  Well that was something.

In a nutshell, we did indeed walk from St. Jean Pied du Port to Santiago de Compostella.  After a pesky foot injury, I came very, very close to skipping a stage by bus, but somehow it just never happened.  I’m not sure I’m proud of ignoring my body’s message, but my foot does seem to be healing, so there’s that.  It took 34 days, spanned 799 kilometers, and required one roll of kinesthetic tape, several boxes of bandaids, one container of compede, almost a full container of an ancient salve for pilgrim joints and skin problems, an unknown number of bottles of wine and plates of patatas bravas, several midday beers, approximately four emotional meltdowns, and a lot of pep talks.  Compared to my last Camino?  The word that keeps coming to mind is: harder.  My body, mind, and life is significantly different.  Processing all the moments of beauty and all the days of endless difficulties is something I am only, slowing beginning to tackle.  And writing it down feels a bit farther away. I can say for certain that the miraculous world of the Camino still provides all the love, protection, and support that anyone needs to get through the mountains of self-doubt and endlessly developing blisters the morning hours bring.  But more on that later. For now, my emotional brain needs a snooze.

After many years of waiting, obsessive planning, and borderline-neurotic budgeting, I am finally a freelancer.  On my first morning over here, I am currently one- for-one with showering, eating a proper breakfast, and putting on real-people clothing.  Ben bought me a sweet little bird statue and I have decided that he is my freelancing mascot.  I have yet to name him/her.  Perhaps Carmella II–after my Camino walking stick that I had to leave behind in Santiago. She will be missed.  Anyway, though I’m handling my panic quite well, this is all a bit terrifying–this whole “getting what you want and hoping it works out” thing. Three nights ago, I landed at JFK, bleary-eyed, confused, and crotchety after a full 24 hours of travel to get from a hotel room in Santiago de Compostella to the apartment I have dreamed of laying my eyes on for the past six weeks.

At the moment, I still feel odd even adjusting my eyes to the look of a computer screen. My brain has not required this type of focus since late June, and I’m shocked at how strange it feels to stare at one white square while trying to type this out.

So instead of totally freaking out at the freelancing task ahead of me, I’m starting with small, controllable steps.  And when I reach the day (hopefully very soon) when I can genuinely begin to piece together the stories from my second Camino, this will be its immediate home.

Until then, this is where I’m at logistically:

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The Counting Down of Days

I’ve always been a calendar counter.  When I was a kid, I used to pick something in the future to look forward to and write numbers across the little boxes on my wall calendar.  I’d cross them off with big markered x’s, even occasionally adding a half slash around noontime.  As a now-Buddhist, this isn’t ideal.  The days and moments leading up to a change are not to be scratched off a calendar or discounted as unimportant.

And yet about a year ago, I began counting.  The months at first, then the Mondays, then the workdays.  Last June I could say for certain that I had 12 months left until I could walk away from a desk life.  And even though it had been very good to me, I disconnected from a part of myself.  And so I counted. And I set my sights on the landmarks that would remind me of the passage of the year.  The seasons, the holidays, the little celebrations in between.  I wanted to time to pass so quickly that I discounted the most obvious factor–one that you’d think I would have learned after 30 years of counting–life happens, and sometimes really happens whether you decide to keep your head down and count the hours or not.  A year ago, I saw the upcoming 12 months as just that–time to be passed.  And now that they are gone, I see them for what they were: a year of life changing, earth-shattering changes, troubles, and celebrations.  Long sleepless evenings, beautiful nights of friendship and love, and endless reminders of the strength of a strong community.

To honor a year that never deserved to be counted down on a calendar, here is the year I never expected–the year that lead me to the start of my Camino, or perhaps was the beginning of it in the first place:

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BRB: Ukulele Parade

Today I celebrated the Summer Solstice by marching in a ukulele parade.  I do not, sadly, play the ukulele, but I did play a mean plastic maraca and tried to sing along.  Also, I broke a curse! This was the first official parade that I’ve ever  marched in.  I’ve been scheduled to march in several parades since I was a kid, but three now have been rained out.  So with my merry band of about 10 people and my awesome coworker Pia, I finally broke my cancelled parade streak.

It’s important to note that I’ve had more coffee today than I’ve consumed in the past week put together.  Reading over the letters of this blog post is like trying to catch sentences bouncing around a screen.  My health has finally improved, and so coffee is my friend again.  Also, I clearly needed an iced coffee to make the ukulele parade an even more beautiful experience.  So if this post doesn’t quite make sense, have a coffee, then reread.

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The Camino List!

I woke up this morning with a new sense of hope. It is the first time I’ve slept soundly through the night since last weekend, and I’m sure it was partially due to the fact that I was finally able to eat somewhat normally yesterday.  I’m still unable to get back to hiking training, but I feel less like the room is spinning every time I exert myself.

I am also beginning to fully process that I indeed only have two more weeks in a full-time, traditional office setting.  I’ve been counting down my return to the trail for nearly six years, and more recently, obsessively counting down the months and weeks.  This trip represents far more than a career change and “vacation.” It is the end of a three-year push to pay off a mountain of debt, to figure out a new lucrative, freelance career and lifestyle, and most importantly–to learn how speak up for decisions and ideas that truly make me a better, more complete person.

But with joy and realization, comes the inevitable travel anticipation–the total “holy crap moment” that accompanies leaving your comfortable bubble and doing something rather terrifying.

And so to both celebrate this morning’s new-found sense of hope, and to recognize my underlying terror of returning to this physical undertaking of hiking 500 miles, I have begun mentally making the “Camino List of Awesome Stuff”–a list that will keep me going through my final 15 days.

Things I’m looking forward to on the Camino

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A Time Capsule of Anger

I try to avoid negativity and anger on my blog.  After all, it’s published online for all to see, possibly forever.  But to be truthful and straightforward–and to recognize the physically and spiritually difficult trip I am leaving for in two weeks–I will respect the crappy feelings as well as the good ones.  So if you are–understandably–not in the mood to read a rant, do not feel bad about moving on.  This rant is for comparison for when I return in August.  It is a time capsule of sorts, here to look back on once I have found some distance.

 

 

Recently, I’ve found that the same people who tell you constantly to “take better care of yourself” are the ones that will also go out of their way to point out why you aren’t working hard enough.  I’ve spent the past four years in a work and family-related “assistant role.”  I’m the “dependable one,” the one that doesn’t get angry, the one that reads all the details and explains them to others with a smile, the one that orders the food, sets up the wedding, puts everything in place.  I am thanked constantly for it–which I find very kind. And yet you know what would be kinder?  A hand when I ask for one.  Since last summer, I’ve been mysteriously sick.  I have bouts of terrible stomach problems, landing me in bed with no energy, barely able to eat for a week.  My joints hurt most of the time, my muscles involuntarily twitch–luckily not enough for anyone to see if you don’t look closely enough.  I am tired and foggy, and feel most days like I am moving through  a physical and mental swamp.  I have asked for space but am rarely, truly given it.  I am told to rest and then called to assist an hour later.

Because when the “helpful girl” admits to being chronically sick, or additionally just sick and tired of being the only go-to person in a community–the contradictory people come out of the woodwork.  Now that I have admitted “weakness” by speaking about my health issues and expressing a passion to move on to a different career, they descend, pleasured to find a scapegoat for anything that can be pinned on the “girl who helps everyone, but messes things up because she desires a life change.” They are the finger-pointers, and only in the privacy of their quiet moments do their fingers really just point back at themselves.  Common phrases include, “Maybe you’re not eating healthy enough.” “Why haven’t you seen the specialist I suggested–that’s why you’re sick.” “You disrespect your anxiety because you won’t take anti-depressants.”  “You probably just need to stay more positive.” “Everything will be fine, just keep doing all the stuff your’e doing.  Oh, and take it easy, you’ll make yourself sicker.”  Or there are the career-related ones: “Some of us can’t choose our careers over having a family.” “You might as well give that artistic thing a try when you’re young so you can come back to this when you want to have kids.” “How does your husband feel about this?”

I know these are projections of their own issues; I know all the logical reasons why this shouldn’t get out of my skin. And yet all of the practical, psychologically friendly pep talks I’ve given myself in the past several months have done nothing to keep my anger, frustration, and bitterness at bay.  I do not like who I am right now.  I don’t like how I respond to people’s needs, coworkers questions, or family expectations.  I knew my anger had over-boiled when the other day, while walking into Trader Joe’s, I became resentful toward the automatic door for not opening right away when I walked my cart up to it.  It’s a shock to everyone who has named me the “calm dependable girl.”  Because right now, I am not that.  I almost yelled at a door in public.

At the same time, this weird wave in my life has shown me that my frustration has significant outside sources, and is not something I’m imagining, or need to “just find a way to get over.” Yes, I need to build up my defenses against the occasional misunderstanding, but no, I will not carry on to simply be the girl who everyone thanks for cleaning up the work they don’t want to do themselves.  I was recently told that I should expect less of people so that I would not be as disappointed when they did not treat me with respect.  What a terrible way to view those around us–that we should expect less of everyone?  Not take their word as truth?  Assume that they will not come through?

I am writing this rant as a reminder for myself when I return in August from the Camino.  I am angry and tired. I don’t sleep a full night because I wake up feeling sick, tense, and angry.  I wish I was better at blocking out the anger around me, especially when it is wrongly directed in my direction, but I will also not settle for expecting less of people.  I will continue to expect that those in my life will strive to be true to their word and kind to those around them, because I am striving to do the same.  I am not a saint, I am no indestructible event planner, and I am not (nor should I be) expected to do everything with a smile on my face.  Yes, I may continue to be disappointed by others–and in this state, I may disappoint them–but I will not lose faith in humanity just because I’ve hit a patch in my life when I feel walked on.

Here’s hoping I look back on this with some peace in a few months.  Until then, I’ll be home sick today, hoping I can eat again.