A Note on Belonging

I had a pretty difficult time returning from both of my Caminos. The noise of American televisions, the lack of connection with people in your neighborhood as you walk down the street, the speed of everyday life. The biggest shock driving home from the airport was the rigid geometry of the streets in our suburban town. Everything was a square: the yards, the houses, the intersections.

My left brain, which found some sweet rest while hiking across Spain, grumbled out of hibernation as I tried to adapt back to a regular, monotonous town and schedule. The sound of English was jarring–I missed being forced to find the overlaps in our shared languages to interact.

On the other hand, the Camino opened a social doorway for me. On at least five or six occasions, I’ve had the chance to sit down with other Camino pilgrims and long-distance hikers right after they’ve returned from their own trips. No matter what we talk about, I always ask them the same question: how have you been adjusting to coming home?

Answers run the gamut from missing the constant connection to the earth and the elements to adjusting to the shock of our country’s political tension. For some people, returning to a home filled with far too many possessions seemed wrong after carrying everything you need on your back for so long. Choose your food, choose your clothing, answer all the emails piling in your inbox. Images of trails and forests get replaced by thoughts of tasks and to-do lists.

For me, the hardest part of returning was the impenetrable loneliness of having nowhere to go. As much physical pain as I endured while doing the hike, I missed it all. Waking up in the dark and fumbling for my shoes, shuffling in my bunk bed to switch from my pajama shorts to my hiking pants without waking anyone up around me.

I missed stepping out into the cold 6 am air, knowing that it was the last time I’d feel anything close to that chill with the summer sun on its way. I missed saying goodbye to each town that welcomed me night after night, leaving the paved streets and cutting left into the wheat-filled fields with nothing in the distance but mountains, steeples and pastures of wandering sheep. I even missed caring for my battered feet and popping Advil at the crack of dawn so I could walk on bruised bones. The energy of adventure brewed beneath all of it.

Every time I chat with a recently returned hiker, there’s one similarity when I ask this question–an enthusiastic but often-pained look of “you understand.” And for that hour or two in a coffee shop, I feel less alone. I don’t feel like I’m the only one living a life in a world where I don’t quite belong.

I’ll admit I’m writing this post because I’m having a pretty lousy week. Stress often triggers my persistent depression. Even when I check all the doctor-recommended boxes of working through a bad day, I often lose the battle, feeling even more numb and disconnected by the time I make it to dinner. The fact that I made it out of my house this morning, to this coffee shop and to my blog is a huge accomplishment, but I can’t lean on it to get me out of this month’s funk. It just is what it is, even when I fight it.

Every now and then, if I’m lucky, these dips in stability bring some insight into why I feel this way. And Camino or not, I’ve never felt that I fit in with the rest of this world. As a kid in theatre, I’d count the hours of my school day so I could go to rehearsal with the other wonderful weirdos like me. Teachers lined the hallways with signs about blazing your own trail and being yourself, but if you actually took their advice, you found yourself socially excluded, talked over in class discussions and swept under the rug for special projects, scholarships and nomination-only clubs.

Screw ’em, I used to think. Those kids might be better at writing college essays about being unique, but I know deep down that they’ll end up at the first stable, non-challenging job that comes their way. It made me angry, judgmental and widened the gap between me and everyone else.

It was naive of me to think that these interactions would go away as I got older. I can’t even count how many social situations I’ve sat through with groups of women who talk about office gossip, getting their nails done and other gender-normative favorites, where I find myself zoning out and counting the bubbles in my beer. Even theatre became a game about following the rules, winning the social interaction game and racking up enough points to be considered a “real artist.”

Even with the acceptance I learned on the Camino, I still feel judgment creep up when I’m surrounded by people unwilling to truly connect. My at-home Camino community is often one of the only places I find peace. I had a wonderful conversation with a fellow peregina over lunch yesterday who asked me about the goals of my Camino writing project. “I want people to understand that there’s something more than this,” I answered. And still, my book sits in a Word Doc in a million little pieces with no thru-line.

Every time I sit down, I try to write this thing from a place of love, and all that comes out is anger, longing, frustration, and a feeling of being left out of some society I don’t even want to be a part of. How do I make peace with the fact that I’ve seen a glimpse into a different way of living and have to pretend to still like this one?

I’m sorry to end this post without answers, but today I have none. Perhaps that’s the point of the book, perhaps not. Perhaps I just need to write something and simultaneously accept that it may never have a home even once it’s written.

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