Villava to Uterga

Last night, I went to the Shambala Center in NYC, a Buddhist school with meditation instruction and mindfulness talks open to the public. Robert Chender, a senior meditation teacher of this lineage, lead the evening, centering his lesson around the “stories we tell ourselves” in order to deal with difficult emotion. He explained that one of the aims of meditation is to quiet the voice in the logical part of our brain that either placate or encourages the amygdala–the fear center of our brain. Instead, we’re meant to simply feel what we’re feeling and then let it go.

“Imagine how incredible our lives could be if we stopped believing our own story.” This struck me more than anything else throughout the night. As a writer, my story is my identity–honing and shaping it is my livelihood, my mission. But on the other hand, he’s right–even the story I now use to guide my writing has often acted as a barrier to living my life. When I first thought about going on the Camino, my brain told me that I wasn’t athletic enough to do it. Many people outside my brain said this to me as well. My brain–and my neighbors–also told me that it’s dangerous for a woman to travel alone.

These stories all come from somewhere, but they skew or shroud important facts. They build false bias, encourage unnecessary fear, and can even develop into disgust for yourself or someone else.  No, I wasn’t athletic, but I could train. Yes, it can be dangerous, but I could take precautions. Both Caminos for me became about listening to my natural emotions as they arise without judgment, instead of the long-winded, overly structured story that I’ve written for myself inside my mind. In the regular world, we get too busy to even realize this is happening. On the Camino, it’s impossible not to hear and see our BS stories for what they are–BS.

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Zubiri to Villava

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Photo cred: Christina (I didn’t take photos on really bad days)

My therapist recently told me that the Camino was easy living–an escape from it all–and that reality back home presents the true challenges. I’d like to disagree.

As my roommates’ alarm clocks activated one by one, I delicately tested out my ankle which had spent the night throbbing and occasionally spasming depending on my position. Nope, can’t move it.  I knew that I’d finally hit my limit. Without a solid night of sleep in seven days, I had to make a call, something needed to change.

I let everyone else trickle out to gather their stuff before I attempted to get down from my bunk, but the moment I hit the ground I burst into tears. I’d never had pain like that before. I immediately crawled back up into bed.

When the twins came in to tell me about breakfast, I turned around and they saw the state of my red and tear-soaked face. I explained to the two of them–and then to Christina–that I wouldn’t be able to walk for at least an hour, if at all. Christina was willing to wait until 8am, and if I wasn’t in good shape by then, I’d call a cab. I was too afraid to get stuck somewhere on my own without a phone signal.

I am a stubborn human, especially when I tell myself that I’m going to complete something. A few minutes after 8, against all logic, I slipped my swollen foot into my boot and flipped on my backpack.

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Roncesvalles to Zubiri

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Photo cred: Christina Kosyla

The tired mind is an unruly mind. This day–of which I have very few photographs, zero of the actual hike (though Christina snapped a few)–sparked only a handful notable memories before we reached our destination. They all got covered by an insomnia-driven frustration and anxiety.

I never saw the culprit who snored his way ’til dawn, for I finally fell asleep two hours or so before our scheduled departure. He left before I could catch a glimpse of him.

My knee and the back of my ankle was a mess, sending me yelping in pain every time I straightened or bent either in the wrong direction. And outside, a thick mist made it hard to see even a few feet ahead.

We took our time getting out the door, hoping the rain would pass. The body goes through a rough transition the day after the Pyrenees. In any other situation, you’d rest, let you muscle develop. But here, no, you just keep moving. After a rather slow breakfast, we took off, Christina immediately far ahead, understandably not wishing to stick with someone hobbling at my pace for so long. Besides, I wasn’t much company.

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St. Jean to Roncesvalles: Part 2

Part 1 can be found here.

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Toward the middle of every Camino hiking day, you hit a silent, steady stride. With so much land behind you and so much ahead, there isn’t much to think about other than the current trail. The forest eventually returned, reminding us how much easier it is to breathe when protected by a thick canopy of trees.

I distinctly remember passing a giant stone that read “España” on my first trip. Either we missed it in the haze of the day, or it never existed in the first place. Either way, you do simply walk into Spain. They stamp your passport at the albergue when you arrive and that’s it. No ceremony, no checkpoint.

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The heat, humidity and knee pain really began to wear on me in the final several hours. Once you know the end is near, it requires much more discipline not to fall apart. As we crested one of what felt like a hundred hills, we spotted a path of pilgrims way up ahead, ascending yet another incline. How could we possibly still be going up?

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St. Jean to Roncesvalles: Part 1

This post would be over 3,000 words if I wrote out the whole day, and that still only dips into my “book” version of this telling currently in progress. So I will make it halfway.

(Also, I do not currently have time to proof it, so–sorry for the mess!)

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07/07/17

I experienced all five stages of grief while crossing the Pyrenees. Denial, anger, bargaining, and for a fleeting moment, acceptance. I then looped back around to a few just for good measure. I suppose I was mourning the passing of my normal life for the next five weeks or even the life before and after this particular Camino.

Even though this was my second hike from France to Santiago de Compostela–799 kilometers west of where I stood–this one, as they all are and will be–was different. I entered the first Camino with the weight of unexplained sadness. The five weeks opened my eyes a story I’d been suppressing since I was a little kid (more on that later), but I did go into it with something precious–enthusiasm.

Somewhere between 2009 and 2017, I’d lost enthusiasm for things. I hadn’t lost love, curiosity, or even gratitude. But that extra energy required to feel enthusiastic about something? Well I’d grown too angry, tired and practical to remember what that felt like. And so I knew I carried a different weight heading into this trip, and the Pyrenees is damn crazy way to kick things off.

Denial

I felt surprisingly okay rising after my fourth night of not-so-great-sleep. At least I’d slept more than the first time I crossed in 2009, and also, the weather looked like it would be stunning today. Eight years earlier, we crossed in dangerous fog and sleep, missing most of the beauty that the Pyrenees offers, and also probably risking our lives.

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Bordeaux to St. Jean Pied de Port

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Arriving in St. Jean in 2009

Leading up to the trip, I often dreamt of a group of hikers walking up a hill from the train station in St. Jean Pied de Port–a common starting point of the Camino Frances. It was such a distinct memory from my first Camino–a moment when the weight of my decision really set in, when I realized that I was now a part of a different group of people separate from my group back home.

When I woke up the next morning, after about four hours of very rocky sleep, I realized that I’d finally get to see that exact image later in the day.

Despite my exhaustion and not wanting to say goodbye to my friends, I was relieved to finally start heading in the direction of the Camino. So much hype for so many years. The original idea of coming back started to grow as early as 2012, just after moving to Jersey City with Ben. I believe I drunkenly shouted it outside of Barcade. Then, when I walked into Journal Square a year later and saw the horrific news on the TV screens about the train crash in Santiago, something in my head shifted fully into place.  It was time to stop putting it off. I am still one of them, and I have to be back there.

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Photo Cred: Claire Higgins

Christina and I suited up, took a clean and bright-eyed “before picture” and said goodbye to Claire and Helen. Still connected to Wifi, I took a screenshot of the map leading us to the Bordeaux train station, the first of two trains that would take us to St. Jean. Without the yellow arrows yet to guide us, I was still dependant on this thing.

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Bordeaux to St. Émilion

July 5th, 2017

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Leave it to me to have a panic attack on a wine tour. I’ve had panic attacks on and off since I was little, and they’re infrequently triggered by anything obvious. I’m fine one hour, and the next, I notice a slowly growing discomfort, usually in my throat, getting worse and worse–like I can’t fully swallow all the way. Once the nausea comes on, I usually know what’s up. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve been in therapy since I was 19.  But I’ve never quite gotten rid of these waves.

I thought the heat of the city was making me feel woozy–it was over 90 degrees that day and we’d walked through the streets to make it to the tour bus. We were set to head out into the countryside for some sightseeing and wine tasting. Anything involving a bus and a tour guide is really not my jam, but I didn’t want to be a killjoy, and my friends were right–we’d see more of the area this way.

Still, by the time I took my seat next to Helen on the bus, Mr. Panic was there, acting out in full swing. I told Helen what was up and she said what any friend of 10 years would say. “It’s cool, I’m right here next to you, girl. No one on this bus needs to know but me.”

With the pressure of ruining the day off my chest and trusty Helen by my side, I tried to figure out what was causing my shaking hands and the feeling like everyone around me was yelling.

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EWR to LIS to BOD

Been struggling a whole bunch with my Camino writing. With the year anniversary of the trip, I’m going to try and touch on each day just for memory’s sake. Some may be long,lofty posts, others just a picture with a sentence about blisters. But here we go.

Lisbon to Bordeaux

July 4, 2017

Before our journey, Bordeaux made me think of two things: wine (clearly) and a very strange scene we’d performed in my London acting conservatory. I couldn’t tell you a darn thing about what happened in the scene, except that a character said “Bordeaux” all drawn out and with a thick, Southern-American accent. Who can say why. Theatre is strange.

Anyway, luckily for us, Bordeaux was an obvious place to rest our heads before Christina and I started our hike across Spain on the 7th. If you’re planning your own pilgrimage, work in nap time. Seriously, don’t hike while jet-lagged if you can help it.

I usually can’t sleep on planes, and our red-eye from Newark to Lisbon and then Lisbon to France was no exception.

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My anxiety likes to rear its ugly head when I haven’t slept well, making the particularly small plane we packed into that flew over Northern Spain extra stressful. Yay for me. Not only was I seated alone, but reality really flooded in as we flew in the opposite direction of our upcoming pilgrimage.

Crossing the Pyrenees struck an extra rough chord in me. In just three days, we’d be heading over them in the other direction, on foot. The last time I’d crossed, we hit terrible weather–rain that turned into sleet. And though it’s a great story now, it wasn’t so grand at the time. What had I done? I’ve been here, I’ve done this, why did I convince myself to come back? I could be sitting by a lake with Ben’s family in Western Pennsylvania, drinking craft beer and planning out my next nap.

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A Book Without a Story

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I’ve found that writing a book about an incredibly long hike often mirrors the metaphors of hiking the darn thing itself. Look back too often at where you came from, and you get wrapped up in premature editing. But an occasional healthy glance at where you started reminds you of your progress.

Last fall, I trudged through 85 pages of what essentially became free writing. It’s not all unusable but I did find that I ended up with a whole lot of boring writing that didn’t come from an honest place. Now, with new structure, I’m trying to hike my way through the pages themselves—starting with St. Jean Pied du Port and straight on to Santiago. I’m not allowing myself to veer off to discuss childhood memories or side stories no matter how tempting it may be. I will write what happened, as much as I can remember, and that will be that. Then, after reaching the end, I’ll weave in the stories that make the book about me, about why I went. That should work, right?

So far, not so much. I’m on page 14 of single-spaced writing and I’m only about 2 hours into my first day of hiking. Unlike a day at the office or even a day on vacation, time slows to a snail’s pace when hiking. So much happens over a period of 24 hours. And without a clear story of WHY I’m writing about all this yet, how do I know what to include and what to skip over? 14 pages on one day is too much to do to a reader. Continue reading

Finding Organic Structure

Two fellow writer friends recently inquired about how my book was going. It’s a legit question—eight months ago I flaunted online that I’d written 85 pages of said manuscript before going totally silent about it. Since then, I’ve barely been able to look at it. It actually took writing 85 pages about my Caminos and everything that came before and in between to realize that I had no idea how to write a book. My lack of formal writing training has finally caught up with me.

No, I’m not waiting for some golden strike of lightning to show me the way to write this thing, or even for the possibly never-to-be-seen opportunity to go back to school. I simply don’t know what the story of my book is. What do I have? Two, five-week hikes across a country, a childhood filled with stories that would raise the hairs on the back of your neck, a year of trauma therapy, and all the details in between. Believe it or not, this does not make a story. It makes a very long journal entry. Lucky for me, I no longer have shame in sharing these stories. I do feel that I own them–I am ready to be my own narrator. So, that’s good.

But as I mentioned in my post on Tuesday—I have a pile of memories, stories, and lofty themes that could make endless books that I sure as hell wouldn’t want to read. Maybe someone would, but not me. I’m not putting down my experiences, I just haven’t found the proper way to honor these memories yet.

So how do you do that? The last chapter I read in Natalie Goldberg’s book dealt with finding organic writing structure. Instead of depending on the 5th grade essay structure—roman numerals and all—she suggests that a writer must find some way to structure their writing that works for them. For her, this came after decades of writing with little structure at all–as I’ve been doing quite unsuccessfully. When she did find something that worked for her, she was finally able to sift through that pile of thoughts living in her writer’s mind.

One of her journaling tactics—and eventually her writing structure—comes from jotting down phrases, sights, stories and anything that inspires her throughout her day into her journal. When she sits down to write something longer, she writes one or more of these at the top of her page and sees what comes out within these ideas. This allows your brain to ramble within a theme, it brings out the actual story you need to write—opposed to restricting yourself to the jail that is linear memoir writing.

I’ve done this bunch of times on this blog—my birthday month of stories, the acts of connection series, and even a list of Camino stories that fizzled out. But perhaps my structure has been too tightly held—too much pressure to create something interesting every day. I could, for example, move through the Camino towns as the inspiring word at the top of the journal page. I could try to tap into where my mind lived while walking through each of these little Medieval towns.

So yes, I have 85 sing-spaced pages of gobbledygook (did you know that’s actually a real word? And that I’ve been saying “gobbledyGOOP” my whole life?).  Anyway, what I wrote is not my Camino story. Perhaps it’s all the “this is what people will want to read” crap that I needed to write first.

I do feel a bit like I’m starting fresh, but this time, I’d like to at least be prepared. As I continue to write about not writing, I welcome any book, blog, or class suggestions for those also in this strange boat.

Perhaps one day I’ll look back on this post and say, “How nice! I had no idea I’d eventually write the darn thing.” Who can say.

For now, I’ll go back to sipping my cup of coffee in a bouncy plastic chair outside my favorite coffee shop where I currently sit. The guy next to me is mansplaining college courses to his–daughter? niece? friend?–even though she knows way more about the whole thing that he does. I’m dying to cut in to tell her that she doesn’t have to decide what to do with her life yet, and that no matter how much she plans and trains in one subject, she may still end up sitting in a coffee shop chair trying to recreate her artistic career at 31. But perhaps not.