For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now. To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.
Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina. Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause. It would mean the world!
The last town before our final trek to Santiago de Compostela was relatively anti-climatic. At this point, we were beyond hoping to be romanced by Spanish villages or magnificent churches, and mainly longed to return to hot showers the and luxury of shaving your legs (something I never thought I’d say). But the morning’s weather was stunning, and the group launched their packs onto their bodies with extra vigor and hope.
On one hand, we were returning to the real world. I had lost touch with my boyfriend about a week prior, a situation that was significantly stressing me out, and I also had a ton of loose ends to tie up with the job waiting for me back home. As much as I wanted to be in the moment, five weeks away from responsibility was starting to take its toll. On the other hand, we were returning the real world. Traffic jams, email, days of sedentary life. Not to mention the pressure that the Camino itself hangs over your head–that you will have worked through all your demons by the end of the hike, returning to the old world as a newly enlightened super-being. Physically, I had changed, my ankles and calves were tree trunks at this point, and I was so suntanned that I looked like one of the mothers from my childhood lake community that lathered themselves in coconut tanning oil. Psychologically, I fussed less, and I know that sounds little, but for someone with life-controlling anxiety, this was huge. One of my hiking mates mentioned that I talked way less about money stress, and I just generally had a freer mind to think about other things. But as far as my life-altering breakthrough, nothing yet.
The fairy tale-worthy foliage of the path greeted us as the morning continued to brighten, sun shooting between the towering gnarled trees. I joked that Disney could only dream of recreating something as beautiful and untouched as this. As our normal rhythm picked up, Cortney–another hiking mate of mine–began recounting a story from home, and though I completely forget the content of the story, I know that there was a reference to a math problem. I think something to do with percentages. Long story short, I chimed in with the wrong answer. Without malice, Claire and Cortney chuckled at my goof and continued on with the story. But I felt like crap, and have no idea why this was my breaking point, why this was the final straw on the back of my childhood feelings of academic inadequacy.
Either way, I fell back behind the crowd and, terribly embarrassed, began to wrack my brain about why moments like this bothered me, not just now, but all throughout school. Several days earlier, Claire and I got on the topic of school awards–perfect attendance, honor role, a slew of volunteer awards, scholarships. Claire grew up receiving these awards (which is something to be proud of), and I grew up staying in the audience, listening to the description of those that won these awards. Students were always depicted as “a joy to be around,” “dedicated to their communities,” “someone who always goes above and beyond.”
Now, other than one moment in 8th grade (which I will write about later) when I did receive one of these certificates, I resented these presentations. I knew that my family, as well as many other families and students around me, were doing their best. Until I was eleven, my family lived in a town that even today, has a crime rate 87% higher than any other town in New Jersey. Our house was either broken into or attempted to be broken into four times within a period of three years. A car exploded in front of our house a month before we moved. And the long list of personal attacks made to my family, due to our connections with a few horrible people in that town, is a story for another time, and not a blog post. We left by the skin of our teeth on July 15, 1998.
Although I was deeply grateful for having theatre in my childhood, other things such as academics, volunteering, and a long list of “well-rounded” student activities was not my priority. When personal safety is a common factor in your day-to-day life, who cares about a perfect attendance certificate? But it began to matter later in life, when the hubris of receiving these awards carried into adulthood for certain people. My friends did not fall into this category, but many others in my experience during college and post-college life, did tout their academic achievements as a sign of personal worth. And I was incredibly self-conscious about this.
As I worked through this all, twenty feet or so behind my friends, a wave of anger began to wash over my already-shaky emotional state. Up until this point, I defaulted to shame, or what I felt was unwarranted self-pity. For the first time, this emotion turned to anger. While that student in middle school was being praised for being a go-getter, I was hoping the phone wouldn’t ring with more terrible news about the safety of my family. I was getting through the day. Learning fractions took a back seat to sleeping soundly without fear of every noise in my creaky, vulnerable home. And you know what, that’s crappy. Really really crappy. No one, no child or adult, should have to feel inferior in their education because their real-life work took precedence.
Eventually, Claire and Cortney noticed my absence and turned around to find a sobbing, weary hiker, yelling and screaming into the bushes. I remember Claire saying, “Oh my God, what happened?!” I tried to articulate myself, but it took time. How to do go from messing up a math problem to working through the pent up anger of your childhood? But this connection–between my lack of stellar academic career (though I was still a B student) and my deprivation of a “normal” childhood–had been united through this small moment of embarrassment. To me, not receiving academic recognition meant I was never doing enough, and this stress began to finally, finally pour off my chest for the first time since childhood.
Claire and Cortney supported and listened for the next hour as I spilled out the often-held-back details of those days, and why my priorities differed from most other kids. We arrived, me still puffy-eyed, to the town just above Santiago, which is perched on a panoramic cliff looking over the four steeples of the famous cathedral. The saying on this journey is that “The Camino begins in Santiago.” I knew then that my breakthrough to becoming a better, freer person, was only beginning on this last day of our five-week hike. A door had been opened to a greater life work.
The rest of the morning was now open for sheer celebration. We sung, and laughed, and even ran spinning down a hill (video hopefully linked below).
The surreal exhaustion and disorientation when you reach the end of a pilgrimage is enough to culture shock you into running back to the beginning, back to the mountains, to the hidden hostels, to the places of safety and solitude. But you don’t have a choice, eventually you reach the end and the work gets started.
We stood before the cathedral, hugged our donkey friend, and tried to process the exuberant greetings from the crowd. How do you celebrate when five weeks of perpetual motion is suddenly halted? How do you allow the responsibilities put on hold to flood back into your inbox?
Despite the incredibly difficult weeks that followed this momentous day, a necessary door had been opened in my mind. Because of this, a tidal wave of anger and, eventually, healing had been released. Without this breakthrough, I would still be trapped somewhere behind that door, always wondering why moments of inadequacy shook me to the core.
For those embarking on the Camino, or on a similar personal journey–whether it be a trip across Spain or an incredibly trying commute to work–know that these moment of clarity are the beginning of freedom, they are the sparks that allow us to complete the next pilgrimage. And continuing the trip is worth more than any certificate or societal-produced accolade. Sometimes it’s just about allowing yourself to get from one spot to the next.
Though this will not be my last Camino story, it seemed appropriate to tell this halfway through my writing challenge. For those just tuning in, please consider checking out the 14 stories that came before!