Earlier this week, I decided to launch an account on Instagram called Dear Pilgrim. The aim of the community is to provide a home for those considering walking the Camino de Santiago as well as those who see themselves as seekers, spiritually or not. The idea is connected to a larger project I will talk about soon (I promise). This post is about how the whole thing came about. Thanks for being here.
I spent a good deal of my childhood crouching in that enchanted place between a row of theater seats. I sat, laid, or curled up on the floor in the dark, occasionally peering over the row in front of me to watch a rehearsal under the beams of stage lights.
My parents welcomed me to theatre when I was about eight years old, right around when mom–who taught at a community college–needed kids for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. After that show, she found ways to squeeze kids into nearly every other musical and play festival that came along. Her theatre students–who all seemed to tower over me as a kid–talked about me like I was different from my classmates back at school. “She’s feisty!” “She’s like Wednesday Addams!” “She doesn’t count as a kid, she can hear us talk about this.” College kids cursed in front of me!
Being welcomed into the world of 18-22-year-olds before I hit double digits was the ultimate gift of feeling cool. In the real world, however, I was the girl with long knotty hair who wore stretch pants and Bartman t-shirts down to her knees. I struggled to feel like I belonged anywhere other than backstage in 19th-century bloomers and a large bonnet.
The acceptance from the theatre world delivered a confidence on stage that didn’t carry into the rest of my life. When you’re a kid who can sit still, learn lines, talk loud on stage, and generally not get in the way during tech rehearsal, you’re placed on a pedestal like none other.
I had no question that I had been deemed a “good actor” by the adults in my life and managed to block out any of the bad stuff until I was a teenager. And then, of course, we all know what happens.
I remember standing off to the side of an audition table when I was about 15. A former director of mine moved my resume off the pile and whispered, “Oh she doesn’t do comedy.” It stung and it stuck. I do not do comedy, I reminded myself for years.
By college, the bad comments permeated my broken filter more often than the good ones did. An acting teacher in London said I wasn’t brave and that I was lazy on stage. A boyfriend said I didn’t pay attention to the world. A girl in my class wrote online that I welcomed abuse for attention.
But this post is not about sympathy. It’s about what happened next. As most of you know by now, I stumbled upon the Camino de Santiago–yes, this post is kind of about the Camino–through a scheduling fluke in college. After studying the pilgrimage, one of my dearest friends decided to walk 500 miles after graduation.
I saw me and Claire as incredibly similar humans. We were both theatre people, both vaguely athletic (at least in dance class), and–most importantly–both introspective people with an insatiable desire to ask questions about how the world works. If Claire could do it, couldn’t I? I asked if I could join her several weeks before she left, and very luckily for me, she overwhelmingly said yes. I consider Claire (hi Claire!) to be my catalyst for walking it for the first time.
After I returned, I lost something dear to me–my acting identity. It didn’t happen all at once. It had just always been there, and slowly, it wasn’t anymore. Theatre was where I felt the most like myself. It was my place at the lunch table. It was my hiding place between the rows of theatre seats. But as so many adults told me when I was a kid, most acting careers only last so long. I got tired of missing bills, scraping by at Trader Joe’s, and moving further and further away from New York City for lower rent.
As theatre disappeared from my life, my experience as a pilgrim halfway across the world always seemed to step into its place. You still have this, Ginny, it seemed to say. And so I wrote about it, obsessively. And told people about it. And helped people prepare for their own trips.
And then my identity took a turn. The writing voice that had first begun to flow through my mind when hiking with Claire made it to the page–this page actually. My blog became a home to organize my brain and kick back open the doors I felt had been shut on me when I lost my theatre home.
When the opportunity to walk the Camino again appeared in 2017, this time with another person on my wavelength, it was like going home.
Now, I know full well that a very specific hike in Spain is not for everyone. There are countless logistical, physical, and emotional restraints that would make this trip very unappealing or impossible for many. But there is a part of it that doesn’t require any hiking at all. I’ve enjoyed calling myself a “secular pilgrim,” or a seeker that doesn’t walk these trails for any religious tradition or god.
The chosen identity allows me to anchor myself in a life of inquiry. It offers a community of people from all over the world who long to have deep, restless conversations. And it gives me an action–in this case, walking–to return to when the rest of life doesn’t make any sense.
Now, as I’ve talked about incessantly, I’ve been working on a larger project about both the Camino and my childhood for several years now. Back in 2018, I began writing letters to an imaginary person with the intro, “Dear Pilgrim.” The idea came to me when my sister-in-law Ali suggested I write down my experience for younger generations in my life. I wasn’t sure what would happen with the letters, but they felt right somehow.
But as I got writing, the pilgrim in my mind began to transform. Sometimes, it became the family member who pulled me aside at a wedding and said she always wanted to walk it. Other times, it was the Catholic priest who told me he dreamed of walking it but his busy job kept him from having the time. And others, it became the dear friend in college who said that this pilgrimage wasn’t for him, but perhaps something else was. Every letter went to someone new.
After starting this project, hesitant pilgrims seemed to come out of the woodwork. Bars, birthday parties, strangers on the train, everyone seemed to want to walk something like the Camino but didn’t know if they were being “naive, selfish, or presumptuous” that they could do it.
And every time a conversation got rolling, all I started seeing were the decades of all the things they’d been told by teachers, partners, bosses, parents, or Society with a capital S about how they weren’t the type of people who did adventurous things like this. Too slow, too busy, too lazy, too old, too young.
The Dear Pilgrim project stemmed from the idea that perhaps a stranger telling you that you are enough is, well, enough. Four-hundred miles into my 2017 Camino, I met a man from Poland who pulled us in with his wild life stories. Partway through the night, he handed me a small rosary and told me it was for, “my husband’s Camino.” I nicely told him that Ben had no interest in walking it but he insisted I take it to him with this message.
Several days later, after telling Ben about the encounter and the gift, his way of speaking about the Camino shifted. Sure, I’d invited him hundreds of times, but when a stranger tells you that you’re meant to be there, how do you ignore that? Four years later, Ben would begin his Camino from that very city. Maybe the many from Poland not the primary catalyst for his journey, but it sure did start the discussion.
The power of acknowledging someone’s potential is a great responsibility. This is not to say that we need someone’s approval or permission to live our lives, but we don’t live in a vacuum either. Part of the agreement of this village is saying, “You are meant to do the thing you dream of.” If someone gives you a hint of an identity they’ve discovered, celebrate it to the rafters.
5 responses to “The Power of Simple Acknowledgment”
Oh Boshpants, I know that you are no longer even a Boschpants, but this post made me miss you so! This also made me miss the enchanted place between theater seats so much, even though I never even experienced theater until high school and it was not nearly as large of a part of my life as it was of yours.
You and my friend Kate were the first two people to talk to me about the magic of the Camino, and for that I will always be grateful.
Oh, and if some Cosmic shift happens that brings you to Southwest Virginia, we’ll get the band back together on stage… And let’s try to do some comedy!
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Staceypants! I was always so grateful to have you to share Camino stories with and am so so deeply happy that you walked it. I’m sure someday I will find myself in Southwest VA and will definitely let you know when I do. Thank you as always for the kindest support. Sending love.
Oh friend! Now I will just be living in anticipation of when you end up in Virginia! Seriously though, who is anyone to tell you that you don’t do comedy! I’m still mulling that over.
Anyhow, I remember how we talked about joining a writer’s group and the fear associated with it, and I wanted to share this with you. https://teaandtenderness.com/2023/05/04/what-ive-learned-from-writing-highs/ Of course, don’t feel any pressure to read it, as we are all very busy. I just felt like you might appreciate it and be able to commiserate.
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Oh this post was so lovely! Thank you for sharing it. I ended up joining a group recently and felt similar highs and lows, but all in all, so glad I felt ready to share with a group in that way. Your writing it so great!!!
I think it’s something many of us can relate to, both the highs and lows and the satisfaction in sharing!
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