A Note for the Hopeless

Around the end of June 2020, Ben and I heard a group of people singing “Happy Birthday” outside our window. We live at the top of a fifth-floor walkup on 80th Street in Manhattan, and our apartment looks out onto hundreds of stranger’s back patios and fire escapes.

The first few nights we heard the song, we chalked it up to an enthusiastic Zoom call. But when we started hearing it every night–sometimes multiple times–we were bewildered. In a time when isolation stretched on for the foreseeable future, this imaginary group of revelers started to frustrate me. Why did they get to gather and sing when we were playing by the rules?

By the end of August, our metal and rust-covered rooftop had become our greatest respite from our overheated one-bedroom apartment. One evening, when the singing started up again, Ben carefully leaned over the edge of our fire escape and spotted a group of beautifully set tables and strands of decorative lights. “It’s an outdoor restaurant!” he yelled, “That’s who’s been singing happy birthday!”

No one was breaking the rules, no one was flaunting their social distancing. It was a small pocket of joy outside our window in the back patio of a restaurant we had no idea was even there.

The Tricky Part About Hope

In spite of this cynical misunderstanding, Ben and I have somehow held onto a sense of hope from the very beginning–perhaps foolishly. I personally gripped onto hope so tightly that it took months to get over my anger at others who hadn’t. Even when I spoke to my therapist on the phone–who is paid to ensure I am living in reality–I raged about the lack of trust and hope during such a traumatic time. Every time my positive attitude was met with a “But things will never be the same, ” or a, “Yeah, but we’re gonna suffer a lot before then,” set me on fire with frustration. This feeling, I admit, was unfair.

Hope–quite understandably after this horrific year–has been linked with irresponsibility. I get that. In many parts of our country, a hopeful tone is paired with a flippancy that this pandemic is not as serious as it is. It can be linked with denial, with a sense of–let’s face it–selfishness. But Ben and I never doubted scientists, we wear masks, and we intend to enthusiastically get vaccinated when our time comes. So where did our cautiously hopeful attitude fit in? And why did it bother me so much that we felt alone it it? And why did it take me a year to write this blog post?

Days and Days and Days

Until I was eleven-years-old, I grew up in a very dangerous part of Plainfield, NJ. By dangerous I mean our house was broken into, our family was threatened multiple times, and when we did move, we weren’t listed in the phone book (this was pre-internet). Eventually, we managed to move to the tip of New Jersey so far back in the woods that they’d only recently put up street signs.

The move–which happened on July 15th, 1998 (an anniversary I celebrate every year)–was my end to a metaphorical pandemic. Even as a kid, I knew deep down that Plainfield would end, I just wanted us all to survive to see the day.

When I tried to immediately embrace my new life in my new town, something felt severely off. Imagine driving an hour from your house and finding a town of people that had never heard the term Covid-19. They’d had a perfectly normal year. They went to school, won some achievement awards for good grades, joined a softball team, and regularly hung out with a group of friends. This was me moving at 11. No one else had been through what we’d been through. That whole time, the rest of the world had carried on while we’d remained frozen in time.

A large part of me throughout my teens and early 20s silently resented the people around me for not losing those years. I assumed–incorrectly–that they hadn’t had challenges and that my awful reality was the truer reality–the way the world “really was.” They were the naive ones. What I didn’t realize is that these people, these loving people in my life, were the “Happy Birthday” singers out my window. They were the distant reminders that joy had prevailed somewhere, even briefly, during my dark years. In the end, it was my college group of friends–who were not part of my childhood story–that helped me get to therapy and pulled me out of despair.

The trickier thing today is that we are all in the shit together. There’s no group of people living without the knowledge of our shared trauma. Our trauma has all been different–very much so–but I use the word trauma deliberately. My therapy journey eventually took me to a PTSD specialist in 2016. I never pegged myself as someone with this diagnosis because I hadn’t been in a major accident, seen combat, or been physically attacked. My therapist explained the concept of complex trauma–PTSD that develops over a period of time when the threat remains constant. It is better explained by professionals here. Not all trauma develops into PTSD, but in my case it had.

My work with this therapist made me realize that the way I’d been living my life was not the only option. I always knew this on some level. I moved, after all–life had “returned to normal.” I read all the self-help books, became a Buddhist, went back to Catholicism, gave up both, walked 500 miles across a country, but still, a part of my body was still in Plainfield.

Most importantly, I couldn’t leave this trauma at the top of a mountain in Spain, I couldn’t leave it in a church, I couldn’t even leave it with a therapist. It took a long time to fully believe my world had changed and that the threat was not always waiting outside the front door.

A Complicated Ocean Metaphor

As I’m writing this today, even the NYTimes is admitting that hope could be on the horizon. We have vaccines, we have a president with a plan, and scientists are feeling hopeful. But what about us? I keep feeling like we’re all standing on the shore of hope–please excuse the long metaphor to come. Some have already swum out into the sea while others are on the shore yelling at them to come back. I’d say I’m somewhere in the middle, right in that place where the wave tries to pick you up but you have enough contact with the ground to still walk back.

If this had happened ten years ago, there is no question I would be on the shore. The weight of this horrific year would have proven my greatest fear–that things are “never going to get better.” That’s what depression and trauma love to tell you.

And yet, somehow, this time, perhaps because I’ve been in these waters before, I know we will be swimming again together eventually. It will just take time.

So, why am I finally writing this? Let’s start with why I am not writing this. I am not here to say that there is a silver lining to any of this. Fuck that. It was terrible. It can be terrible. I am not here to say that this pandemic is something that will be easy to get through or get over. We may never “get over” it in the sense that we think. I will never be over Plainfield. Instead, the experience for me has become a comparison tool.

Every now and then, I think back to the girl crossing off days on her bedroom calendar until the big move, terrified that something would happen before then that would hurt her family. Nowadays, even when I’m having a crappy day, I can think “Look at this! I have normal problems!” The world and all its flaws becomes much more vibrant.

When I hike the Camino de Santiago (something I talk about a lot on this blog), I spend most nights in hiker hostels or monasteries with anywhere between 5 and 100 people in each room. People snore, beds creak, and sometimes the air is so thick and smelly that you think there is no way you’ll be able to sleep enough to walk 18 miles the next day. But I’ve learned a trick. I think back to my trapped Plainfield days and ask myself if I’m trapped now. The answer is always no. The cynicism and frustration melt away and it all becomes a big adventure again. By this point, I’m snoring into the church rafters.

We may do that with Covid someday–perhaps not–but maybe. Maybe in a long line at the grocery store, on an over-crowded boardwalk, or when you’re tucked into one of the small wooden seats in a Broadway theatre. What was once frustrating may feel different, like a part of the adventure that was once taken from us.

Now for the reason I am writing this–finding hope after Plainfield took me 16 years. And honestly, the pain is still ongoing, it’s just far lighter than it was. But I moved through it with time, patience, therapy, and a lot of steps forward and backward. The people in my life that remained in the ocean proved that there was still hope out there somewhere–they reminded me that life could go on living when I felt safer on the shore. It helped me to see them, even if I wasn’t ready to join them.

We can hold hope and reality in the same hand. We can wear masks, follow restrictions, and be hopeful that things are improving simultaneously. And when Covid is controlled, we can feel fearful and relieved simultaneously as well.

I don’t have answers about what will happen in the next few months or years, but I can say there is another side to this pain and there is no rush in getting there. The voice that says “the world may never be the same” may simply mean that you will never be the same, and of course you won’t. I definitely won’t. But different doesn’t mean worse off, it’s just different.

I hope to be in the water most days, showing those on the shore that it’s possible to have hope. Other days, I may be back on the shore, safe in my worry. Wherever I am metaphorically, on my 35th birthday this October, I hope to eat at the restaurant outside our window and tell them all about how their singing made a difference in our lives when the world felt so far away.

The Journey Back

I’ve written a lot about coming home from the Camino and how the process can be harder than the walk itself. After three of these crazy journeys, I’ve found that it takes almost exactly a year for me to suddenly realize how I’ve changed. The year leading up to it is wildly confusing, especially the first few months at home. I often feel like someone playing the role of a regular human while my heart is still out in the middle of the woods somewhere.

Of course, I had no idea I was flying home to a pre-pandemic world or that I would not actually return in 2020 as planned. For that reason, I am so grateful I went when I did. It would have been easy to find an excuse not to go, and I was very lucky that I was in position to make that choice. I fully realize this is not common.

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Rewinding 12 Days of Hiking in 3 Hours

I ripped off the bandaid rather early on my last morning in Santiago. I shoved all my things into my backpack one more time and said goodbye to my comfortable hotel haven, to the cathedral, and to the people at Pilgrim House. I exited the city the way I came in, past the restaurant where I’d seen the pilgrims sitting when I was so lost.

My adventure was coming to a close, and now it was time to get myself home. After my first Camino in 2009, my hiking partner Claire and I went to stay with some friends studying abroad in London. Sparing you the details, I was an emotional wreck when I left a few days later for Heathrow airport.

Everything built up from my 35 days of hiking came crashing down on me the moment I realized I needed to get myself back to reality. No one understood what we’d just gone through. The rest of the world seemed so gray, so angry, so flippant. I still woke up at 6am with a burst of energy but people around me seemed put out by the morning hours.

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One Day Without Motion

Waking up in Santiago feels pretty darn good. It takes a moment to realize, however, that you’re in a room by yourself and you have nowhere to walk.

My body shifts into healing mode the moment I arrive. I typically feel sorer on the first day in Santiago than I do the whole trip.

I set my alarm for 7am, not because I had to walk any further, but because it was time to get my Compostela. This is the ancient document that proves you completed the pilgrimage. The stamps you collected along the way act as proof that you didn’t skip 100 miles by bus.

In the old days, Catholics believed that walking the Camino cut your time in purgatory by half. It even used to take the place of prison time in some circumstances. In those days, you’d receive a scallop shell to prove you walked the Camino, and then, you’d walk home. Because how else would you get there?

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How to Walk 15 Miles When You Feel Like Hell

It’s raining and chilly in NYC today. This morning, I went on a walk to honor the end of my Camino in my hiking boots, raincoat, and hiking pants. I came back to a warm apartment with a fridge full of food and a cozy cup of coffee topped off with nutmeg. Life back home is far easier than on the Camino. But that’s not why you go on a pilgrimage.

I’ll never know how I got through that last day of hiking the Camino Portuguese, especially when I’m still chilled from my brief walk outside for 20 minutes. While I’d like to tell you I arrived in Santiago with my head held high, in reality I nearly crawled, and it’s a shock I made it at all.

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“But I Did it My Way”

I woke up to a rainy morning in Briallos and was ready to hit the road with a renewed sense of energy despite my aching knee. A sense of great accomplishment after the 28k day and the nearing finish line provided a decent amount of adrenaline for the penultimate day of hiking.

And anyway, the world now looked and felt like my old memories of the Camino. We were finally back in peak Galician nature. Deep, glowing greens, gnarled trees, and fuzzy chestnuts. I looked forward to another long day in these colors, despite the pain.

Neha and I walked at our own pace once again, though crossed paths throughout the morning several times. It was clear that 28k days were beyond what my body could handle. I could do it, but I ran the risk of hurting myself. Everything ached and threatened to turn into an injury if I didn’t take frequent rests. It also completely explains why I suffered so many injuries and blisters in 2009 and 2017.

Caldas de Reis was the first city of the day. Meandering through the foggy mist of the city reminded me I was by the coast. Lush palm trees poked up between crumbling stone cathedrals and an endless criss-cross of bridges led us through the town busy with their mid-morning routine.

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Santiago Sneaks Up on You

The funny thing about a trip of this length is that the end feels impossibly far away until suddenly, it isn’t. I woke up on the 9th day of walking with the realization that I only had three more days to be a pilgrim. I love this identity. I may not be religious, but the identity of pilgrim–someone constantly seeking something–has always aligned with who I am.

The New York Times has a long list honoring those who have passed away from COVID. Each person in the digital list has a photo, an obituary, and a small subtitle about who they were. I came across one woman in her 90s who was simply listed as “Adventurer and Writer.” I haven’t stopped thinking about her since. I didn’t realize one could still be an adventurer. I hope somewhere she knows that she inspired me to try.

Though I didn’t sleep well in the hostel that night, the sun coming through the curtains was a great reminder that time does pass. I was ready to get moving. Neha and I headed up the first steep hill together but decided to walk at our own paces and meet up when we naturally crossed paths. Continue reading

When the Modern Road Returns

A terrifying carousel in O Porrino. I occasionally send this to Neha for a good scare. Sorry, girl.

It’s easy to look back on a life-altering trip and color the whole experience with a rosy lens. Wrapped up neatly, I was quite content most of the trip, much more so than I managed to be in 2009 or 2017. Then again, staying upbeat for 12 days is different than staying upbeat for 35.

Also, I was far more financially and psychologically stable on this trip. I knew why I was there and I made choices that were mine every step of the way. At one point, I ran into my Canadian parents who told me that I always looked like I was in my groove. They could not have given me a nicer compliment.

However, not every day was romantic and packed with great revelations. Much like life back home, there are some days you’re just happy to reach the end of.

Gratefully, I woke up in Tui feeling healthier than when I’d gone to bed–which pointed to an obvious issue that I had far too much experience with.

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The Third Time I Walked Into Spain

When I woke up in Portugal for the last time as a hiker, the aroma of brewing coffee wafted in from the common room. Someone out there is my true hero, I thought. The rest of the albergue was starting to roll out of bed and the familiar sound of backpacks being packed and teeth being brushed commenced.

My body hurt. I may have slept better, but things were really starting to ache. Your body waits for a weekend on the Camino, but it doesn’t come. My old ailments–a sore ankle, plantar fasciitis, a funky swollen knee, and hip that doesn’t feel screwed on the right way–began to complain.

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